Many of us think of eternal youth as one of those wishes that we would like to launch or ask for and have it fulfilled. But, as in the stories with the genie in the lamp, there is always a catch. The scientists have discovered a similar version of this story that takes place in ant nests where the guarantors of eternal youth are parasites that dramatically extend the lifespan of worker ants (but at what cost).
Did you know that worker ants only live a few weeks or months and in rare cases a few years? Queens can survive for several decades. They spend most of their lives safely in the nest where they are cared for by the workers. The high life expectancy of queens is due to their low mortality rate, attributable to the high levels of social care they receive, their safe environment and the activation of physiological mechanisms of repair. Unless a parasite with special gifts appears.
The ‘elixir of eternal youth’
A team of researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, observed 58 colonies of Temnothorax ants for three years, some infected with Anomotaenia brevis and others without, and were inspected every 10 days. The parasite, the tapeworm Anomotaenia brevis, is capable of extending the life span of a Temnothorax nylanderi ant by up to a decade or two, approaching the age of a queen ant. These parasites survive in hemolymph, the body fluid of insects.
By the end of the experiment, all the original uninfected worker ants had died but, eIn the colonies where Anomotaenia brevis had made an appearance, half of the infected queens and workers were still alive.
“It is quite extraordinary that a parasite can trigger such a positive change in its host. This extension of the lifespan is very unusual,” explains evolutionary biologist Susanne Foitzik, co-author of the work.