Ant engagement activity

Leaf cutter ant colonies fire public interest in antibiotic research

Most antibiotics come from a group of soil bacteria called actinomycetes, including two thirds of those used in human medicine. Matt Hutchings’ research is aimed at understanding how antibiotics are used in nature, in particular by plants and insects that form symbioses with actinomycetes and use them for protection against disease. One of the systems they work on are leafcutter ants from South and Central America. These ants collect leaves and feed them to a fungus which they grow for food. They also grow actinomycetes on their bodies and use their antibiotics to protect the fungus against disease.

Matt’s group is trying to understand how they choose the right bacteria and also whether these bacteria make antibiotics that could be useful to humans. They have also used their captive leafcutter ant colonies to engage widely with the general public at events including the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, the BBSRC Great British Bioscience Festival and the Big Bang Science Fair. Matt and his group have engaged with more than 100,000 visitors to these and other public science events over the last two years as well as through press, radio and TV coverage. Their next big event will be the Norwich Science Festival which launches in October 2016.


Earlham institute
Quadram Institute Bioscience
John Innes Centre
The Sainsbury Laboratory
University of East Anglia

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