Fungus eating ants have inspired a novel approach to reduce antibiotic resistance.

Attine ants grow ‘fungal gardens’ as their food source, however their fungus food supply is also fed on by a parasitic fungus. To counter this threat, the ants form an unlikely alliance. The ants host bacteria on their bodies that produce anti-microbials to kill the parasitic fungus. The ants provide the bacteria with nutrition and an ideal microclimate for growth, whilst the bacteria protect the ant’s food source.

In the clinical setting, the parasitic fungus would eventually evolve resistance to the anti-microbials produced by the bacteria and consume the ant’s food source. However, in the natural world this doesn’t happen and the ant, bacterial and fungi interaction has remained stable for 60 million years. In contrast, many pharmaceutical anti-microbials are rendered ineffective within a few decades.

The researchers investigated the anti-microbials produced by the bacteria. It was found that the bacteria continually varied both the type and combination of anti-microbial molecules used over time. The parasitic fungi receive unpredictable antibiotic treatments and cannot evolve resistance quickly enough.

These findings have clear clinical applications. It may be that a ‘cocktail’ mix of similar antibiotics, with slightly different structures, could be more effective than a prescription of just one antibiotic. The researchers next aim to investigate the effect of the antibiotic ‘cocktail’ mix on the genetic mechanisms that allow bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance.