Ants Take Sick Days to Protect Their Colonies from Disease

iStock.com/Heri Mardinal
iStock.com/Heri Mardinal

If you have the flu, it will benefit you—and your colleagues—to stay home until you recover. The same concept apparently applies to ants, which essentially take a sick day when they've been exposed to harmful pathogens, Newsweek reports.

These new findings, published in the journal Science, come from a team of researchers in Austria and Switzerland. The researchers used infrared cameras to track the movements of more than 2200 garden ants in 22 different colonies. Ten percent of the insects were exposed to Metarhizium brunneum spores—a type of fungus that served as a pathogen among the ants.

Ants that had been exposed to the fungus altered their interactions with other ants to prevent the spread of a potentially fatal disease throughout the colony. "The cliques among ants become even stronger, and contact between cliques is reduced," Sylvia Cremer of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria said in a statement. "Foragers interact more with foragers, and nurses more with nurses. This is a response by the whole colony—animals who are not themselves treated with spores also change their behavior."

In other words, the exposed ants change their behavior to protect their cohorts, especially valuable members like the queen and nurse ants (young worker ants which help care for infant ants). They don't eliminate the exposure entirely, but merely limit it. This actually works in the ants' favor. A low dose of the pathogen can help the other ants build up immunity, which "can be compared to the process of vaccination in humans," lead author Nathalie Stroeymeyt told Newsweek. A high dose, on the other hand, can kill an ant within nine days.

It's unclear whether the ants actually stopped working during the experiment because only their locations, not their specific behaviors, were studied. But Stroeymeyt said their habit of isolating themselves "would be comparable to taking a day off work in the sense that they decreased their contacts with contaminated co-workers."

[h/t Newsweek]

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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