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A study at the University of East Anglia has revealed that Leaf-cutter ants, originating from the South American rainforest, have the ability to cultivate a spectrum of antibiotic-producing bacteria on their own bodies. The ants use the beneficial bacteria to help protect the leaf sections that they carve from plants and transport, where it then decays and transforms into a fungus, and food source. The bacteria helps to protect this fungal food source from unwanted microbes and parasites, as well as helping to regulate its growth.
Although the research is still in its infancy, researchers are hopeful that the discovery of this friendly bacteria carried by the ants may help in providing sources of new antibiotics in the future to help fight infection. The antibiotic properties of the bacteria found on the ants are similar to many antifungal agents used in modern medicine.
The Government has expressed the need for the discovery of new antibiotics in order to combat increasing antibiotic resistance. Professor David Walker, the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, states “If we don’t take action now, we could face a situation when some common infections become untreatable”.
Scientists are confident that studying natural processes, such as those of the Leaf-cutter ant, will help in the discovery of new antibiotics.