A North­eastern Uni­ver­sity biology pro­fessor and her team of stu­dent researchers have dis­cov­ered that the social feeding habits of car­penter ants reduce dis­ease trans­mis­sion and wide­spread infec­tion within the colony, in much the same way that a mother’s milk helps her child boost his immune system against for­eign organisms.

The results of the study were pub­lished in a June issue of Biology Let­ters, a peer-​​reviewed sci­en­tific journal.

Although the research focused on social insects, the team’s find­ings could even­tu­ally be applied to solving com­plex prob­lems in fields of study as diverse as human dis­ease and salmon farming, says coau­thor Rebeca Rosen­gaus, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of biology. Brian Lejeune, a third-​​year chem­ical engi­neering major and biology minor, and North­eastern alumnus Casey Hamilton, now a grad­uate stu­dent in biology at Towson Uni­ver­sity, col­lab­o­rated on the study.

Our study shows that immune responses gen­er­ated by indi­vidual car­penter ants are actu­ally shared with mem­bers of the society in which they live,” says Rosen­gaus. “If we could figure out if other ani­mals reared at high den­si­ties share their indi­vidual immune responses in the same way as ants, then we may reduce losses in production.”

Car­penter ants live in densely pop­u­lated, microbe-​​rich envi­ron­ments, where chance of infec­tion and dis­ease trans­mis­sion runs high. North­eastern researchers set out to dis­cover whether their social nature—they have a ten­dency to lick and groom each other and share liquid nutri­ents through mouth-​​to-​​mouth mutual feeding—makes it more or less likely that they would spread disease.

To find out, Lejeune injected one group of car­penter ants with a vac­cine known to stim­u­late immune responses and another with a benign saline solu­tion. Unvac­ci­nated ants that were fed by their vac­ci­nated nest-​​mates lived longer than ants fed by saline-​​injected nest-​​mates.

The results indi­cate that indi­vidual immune responses can be redis­trib­uted to a colony through social inter­ac­tions, thus facil­i­tating dis­ease resistance.

Lejeune, who recently returned from California’s Red­wood Forest, where he and Rosen­gaus col­lected ter­mites for future exper­i­ments, said the oppor­tu­nity to immerse him­self in hands-​​on research was valu­able expe­ri­ence. “I’m get­ting used to using lab tech­niques and devel­oping good lab prac­tices,” he said. “I’m doing data analysis and thinking about how to devise my own experiments.”