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Hands-on at this exhibit

  • Find new antibiotics in our antibiotic discovery zone
  • Have a look at our captive leafcutter ant colony
  • Explore a 3D leafcutter ant
  • Study antibiotic-producing bacteria under our ‘eyepieceless’ Mantis stereo microscope

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Our exhibit explains the origins of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes using leafcutter ant colonies as a model. We also explain where the next generation of antibiotics will come from. Two thirds of the antibiotics and anticancer compounds used in medicine are derived from the natural products of soil-dwelling actinomycete bacteria. Remarkably, leaf-cutter ants house symbiotic actinomycete bacteria on their cuticles and use their antibiotics to protect themselves and their fungus gardens. The fungus is nourished with foraged leaf material and then used to feed the ant larvae and queen. The ants have been using antibiotics to grow their fungus for 50 million years.

 
Two thirds of the antibiotics and anticancer compounds used in medicine are derived from the natural products of soil-dwelling bacteria. Find out how leafcutter ants are helping us understand antibiotic resistant genes.

Insects, plants and primitive marine animal animals like sponges and cone snails have evolved mutually beneficial relationships (known as symbioses) with antibiotic-producing bacteria. They use these bacteria to protect themselves against infection in much the same way that we use natural product antibiotics to protect ourselves. The bacteria and their hosts are often co-evolved over millions or tens of millions of years which means they may be producing antibiotics which are completely new to science and which could be used as medicines to combat multi-drug resistant infections. The leafcutter ant symbiosis is one of the best characterised and we have been isolating and identifying the bacteria involved and screening them for novel antibiotics.

We are also using leafcutter ants to try and understand how these symbiotic relationships form; i.e. how do the host plants or animals select antibiotic-producing bacteria over all the other bacteria living in the soil. This could benefit agriculture as we want to promote beneficial symbiotic relationships in crop plants so we can make the crops healthier and increase the yield.

Find out more: www.uea.ac.uk/leafcutter-ants

Lead image: A 3D model of an Acromyrmex octospinosus leafcutter ant.