Atta the leafcutter ant and the discovery of antibiotics

by Lorena Fernández Martínez

It was raining that morning and the leafcutter ants were having an emergency meeting.

The Queen was really worried about the mysterious bacterial infection that was destroying the colony’s precious food supply. “What we have to do is find all the infected food and destroy it” the queen said to the ants. She knew that if the infection continued spreading this fast, the leafcutter ants would starve.

The rain in the tropical forest had just stopped and Atta, a very curious young leafcutter ant, decided to explore the forest to try to find solutions for the mysterious infection.

“If I pay attention to the forest around me I might find the solution to our infection problem. Today could be our lucky day” Atta mumbled to herself as she walked around a particularly large tropical tree. She couldn’t just wait in the nest doing nothing!

As she put one of her six feet down on the ground she heard “Oi! Watch where you are going!” coming from the soil, but she couldn’t see anyone!

“Who is that?” Atta said.

“Down here! Look closely! And move your foot from my head please!” she heard coming from the ground again. Atta bent down and put her face really close to the ground, and then she saw him! It was a tiny bacterium! She had accidentally stepped on him. And he wasn’t happy about it!

“I’m so sorry! I did not see you down there!” Atta apologised to the tiny bacterium.

“Hmm ... I suppose ... I am really small ... and you did not mean to step on me! I’m Sven. Nice to meet you!” Sven was a friendly soil bacterium. Unlike some bacteria, Sven cannot move, which is why he could not run away from Atta’s foot!

“I’m Atta. Nice to meet you too!” said Atta.

“Hi Atta! What brings you to this part of the forest? Are you foraging for leaves to eat? There might be some fresh ones that way...” said Sven. And as he pointed to where a stack of lovely fresh leaves where sitting, Atta started laughing.

“I don’t eat leaves! I tried a leaf once and it was disgusting!” Atta smiled. “Leafcutter ants like me collect leaves from the forest and bring them back to the nest to feed our fungus farm! The fungus is what we eat and it is delicious!” Atta took a deep breath as she loved the smell of the tropical forest after the rain. “Smells lovely doesn’t it?” she said to Sven.

“Thanks! I am the one that makes that smell. I’m really proud of it!” Sven replied.

“Wow! That’s amazing! I didn’t know that little soil bacterium like you could make the smell of rain!” Atta said. “Are there any other useful compounds that you can make Sven?”

“Well, the soil is a very tough place to live you know? There is not much food around, and I cannot walk like you or swim, so anyone can come and pinch my food! But if other cheeky bacteria try to steal from me, I pretend I haven’t seen them and then... BANG! I fire antibiotics at them! These antibiotics stop them from moving and growing so they cannot steal my food any longer!” replied Sven.

“That is sooooo clever Sven!” And that’s how Atta realised that her new friend Sven could be the answer to the ants’ infected food problem.

“Sven, would you like to come and live in my family’s nest? We will make sure you always have food if you can use those antibiotics that you make to stop the infection in our fungal farm!”

“I would love to Atta!” Sven had lived in that spot of soil for a while and fancied a change. Atta seemed really nice and a leafcutter ant nest sounded like a very exciting place to move to!

Atta picked Sven up and dashed back to the nest. She really hoped Sven could stop the infection on time. Once in the nest, Atta carefully placed Sven in the fungus farm and Sven started firing his antibiotics “BANG BANG BANG BANG”. Within hours the infection was under control and a couple of days after Sven moved to the fungus farm the infection had completely disappeared! The fungus grew back even healthier than before and the leafcutter ants had plenty of food again.

The ants were so grateful to Sven that the Queen knighted him for his services to the colony and even made him an honorary leafcutter ant.

Atta went back to her normal leaf cutting and foraging activities but every day she would go and visit Sven and tell him about all the things she found in the forest and they became best friends. Sven really liked his new home. The ants were really lovely and always made sure he had plenty of food and water. He felt really lucky that Atta accidentally stepped into him after all!