Disease defence in garden ants
By: Pull, Christopher D.Material type: BookPublisher: IST Austria 2017
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2 Social immunity: emergence and evolution of colony-level disease protection
3 Destructive disinfection of infected brood prevents systemic disease spread in ant colonies
4 Cocoons protect ant pupae against the harmful side effects of chemical disinfection 65
5 Co-founding ant queens prevent disease by performing prophylactic undertaking behaviour
6 Ontogeny of immunity in incipient ant colonies
7 Towards a unified framework for studying disease defences
Contagious diseases must transmit from infectious to susceptible hosts in order to reproduce. Whilst vectored pathogens can rely on intermediaries to find new hosts for them, many infectious pathogens require close contact or direct interaction between hosts for transmission. Hence, this means that conspecifics are often the main source of infection for most animals and so, in theory, animals should avoid conspecifics to reduce their risk of infection. Of course, in reality animals must interact with one another, as a bare minimum, to mate. However, being social provides many additional benefits and group living has become a taxonomically diverse and widespread trait. How then do social animals overcome the issue of increased disease?
Over the last few decades, the social insects (ants, termites and some bees and wasps) have become a model system for studying disease in social animals. On paper, a social insect colony should be particularly susceptible to disease, given that they often contain thousands of potential hosts that are closely related and frequently interact, as well as exhibiting stable environmental conditions that encourage microbial growth. Yet, disease outbreaks appear to be rare and attempts to eradicate pest species using pathogens have failed time and again. Evolutionary biologists investigating this observation have discovered that the reduced disease susceptibility in social insects is, in part, due to collectively performed disease defences of the workers. These defences act like a “social immune system” for the colony, resulting in a per capita decrease in disease, termed social immunity. Our understanding of social immunity, and its importance in relation to the immunological defences of each insect, continues to grow, but there remain many open questions.
In this thesis I have studied disease defence in garden ants. In the first data chapter, I use the invasive garden ant, Lasius neglectus, to investigate how colonies mitigate lethal infections and prevent them from spreading systemically. I find that ants have evolved ‘destructive disinfection’ – a behaviour that uses endogenously produced acidic poison to kill diseased brood and to prevent the pathogen from replicating. In the second experimental chapter, I continue to study the use of poison in invasive garden ant colonies, finding that it is sprayed prophylactically within the nest. However, this spraying has negative effects on developing pupae when they have had their cocoons artificially removed. Hence, I suggest that acidic nest sanitation may be maintaining larval cocoon spinning in this species. In the next experimental chapter, I investigated how colony founding black garden ant queens (Lasius niger) prevent disease when a co-foundress dies. I show that ant queens prophylactically perform undertaking behaviours, similar to those performed by the workers in mature nests. When a co-foundress was infected, these undertaking behaviours improved the survival of the healthy queen. In the final data chapter, I explored how immunocompetence (measured as antifungal activity) changes as incipient black garden ant colonies grow and mature, from the solitary queen phase to colonies with several hundred workers. Queen and worker antifungal activity varied throughout this time period, but despite social immunity, did not decrease as colonies matured.
In addition to the above data chapters, this thesis includes two co-authored reviews. In the first, we examine the state of the art in the field of social immunity and how it might develop in the future. In the second, we identify several challenges and open questions in the study of disease defence in animals. We highlight how social insects offer a unique model to tackle some of these problems, as disease defence can be studied from the cell to the society.