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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Jul 7;273(1594):1689-95.

Active use of the metapleural glands by ants in controlling fungal infection.

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Department of Biology, University of Puerto Rico, PO Box 23360, San Juan, PR 00931.


Insect societies face constant challenges from disease agents. Ants deploy diverse antimicrobial compounds against pathogens and the key sources are metapleural glands (MGs). Are MG products passively secreted and used indiscriminately or are they selectively used when ants are challenged by pathogens? In 26 species from five subfamilies, ants use foreleg movements to precisely groom the MG opening. In the absence of experimental infection, MG grooming rates are low and workers groom themselves after contacting the MGs. The derived leaf-cutter ants (Atta and Acromyrmex) also groom their fungal gardens, substrata (leaves), queens and nest-mates after MG grooming. Atta respond to a challenge by fungal conidia by increasing the rate of MG grooming, but do not do so when an inert powder is applied. This increase occurs in the first hour after a potential infection, after which it returns to baseline levels. Ants with open MGs produce more infrabuccal pellets (IP) than ants with sealed MGs and conidia within pellets from the former are less likely to germinate. Thus, ants selectively groom their MGs when disease agents are present, suggesting that they also selectively use their MG secretions, which has important implications for understanding the evolution of hygienic behaviour in social groups.

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