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Curr Biol. 2013 Jan 7;23(1):76-82. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.034. Epub 2012 Dec 13.

Ants disinfect fungus-exposed brood by oral uptake and spread of their poison.

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Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Science and Technology Austria, 3400 Klosterneuburg, Austria.


To fight infectious diseases, host immune defenses are employed at multiple levels. Sanitary behavior, such as pathogen avoidance and removal, acts as a first line of defense to prevent infection before activation of the physiological immune system. Insect societies have evolved a wide range of collective hygiene measures and intensive health care toward pathogen-exposed group members. One of the most common behaviors is allogrooming, in which nestmates remove infectious particles from the body surfaces of exposed individuals. Here we show that, in invasive garden ants, grooming of fungus-exposed brood is effective beyond the sheer mechanical removal of fungal conidiospores; it also includes chemical disinfection through the application of poison produced by the ants themselves. Formic acid is the main active component of the poison. It inhibits fungal growth of conidiospores remaining on the brood surface after grooming and also those collected in the mouth of the grooming ant. This dual function is achieved by uptake of the poison droplet into the mouth through acidopore self-grooming and subsequent application onto the infectious brood via brood grooming. This extraordinary behavior extends the current understanding of grooming and the establishment of social immunity in insect societies.

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