Ant guts provide insights into how symbiosis works

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    New Jersey writer Adrienne Simpson interviewed Drexel University biologist Jacob Russell about his bacteria research on ants. (Emma Lee/for WHYY)

    New Jersey writer Adrienne Simpson interviewed Drexel University biologist Jacob Russell about his bacteria research on ants. (Emma Lee/for WHYY)

    For this edition of “So, What Do You Do?,” a New Jersey writer sits down with a Drexel biologist to talk about the organisms inside ants. 

    Ants are great at working together, carrying those pine needles, or bread crumbs into their nests to feed their queen and young – but inside of each ant, more collaboration happens on a microlevel.

    For this edition of our series “So, What Do You Do” New Jersey writer and production researcher  Adrienne Simpson sat down with Drexel University biologist Jake Russel, to talk about his fascination with organisms inside of ants.

    “I study symbiosis, interactions between organisms that are intimate and prolonged,” explained Russell. “We study ants that are vegetarian for the most part, that’s a unique lifestyle for ants. Much like humans, ants have large quantities of bacterias in their gut, and we want to understand their function and roles.”

    “How do the bacteria help the ant, how do they allow an ant to remain a vegetarian?” wondered Simpson. Russell said that his team has found that large colonies of ants all have similar gut bacteria, workers share bacteria, and have likely gotten them from the queen. “It looks like the bacteria provide them with useful sources of nitrogen, for example, they can take urea, a waste product, and turn it into amino acids, that’s one of the ways the bacteria benefit the ants,” he added.

    Russell says ants have strength in numbers, over 12,000 described species of ants live everywhere but Antarctica. “They are the most abundant animal, both in number and biomass,” Russell explained. “If you put them on the scale and stack them up against any other animal that lives on land, ants would win.”

    Simpson admitted that she tends to think of ants as a nuisance, especially if they show up in her kitchen. “So the next time I see an ant on my counter, what should I consider before getting some ant spray?” she wondered.

    “I think many of the ants that end up in your house are things you don’t want there, so I think it’s okay to have that knee-jerk reaction,” said Russell. “If you have carpenter ants, something you don’t want around. But even carpenter ants rely on bacteria that provide them with nutrients that they can’t get from there diets, they are creatures of symbiosis and have become completely reliant on the bacteria.”

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