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Last Updated: Aug 19th, 2006 - 22:18:38

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Humans could learn a lot from ants
Jul 4, 2006, 01:45, Reviewed by: Dr. Priya Saxena

The research shows that Pharaoh ants in particular make sophisticated use of three different chemical scents to gather food efficiently.

Humans could learn a lot from ants, according to research carried out by a team of scientists at the University of Sheffield. The new research, which will be showcased at this year�s Royal Society�s Summer Science Exhibition between Monday 3 July and Thursday 6 July 2006, has demonstrated that ants have extremely sophisticated transport and communication systems, making them better organised and healthier than people.

The research shows that Pharaoh ants in particular make sophisticated use of three different chemical scents to gather food efficiently. The first pheromone evaporates slowly, taking several days to dissipate, and acts as a long-term memory marking out the network of previous routes to food. The next pheromone helps the insects to find new food by marking the route, while the last acts as a `no entry� signal, repelling ants from an unrewarding trail. The angles at the junctions in the trail are very important and also contain vital information. This robust system means that ants can always find their way home and are not so prone to `crashing� as many human-engineered systems.

Despite living in dense colonies, ants and other social insects also rarely succumb to epidemic diseases. By not relying on one defence against micro-organisms, ants combine antibiotics with hygienic individual behaviour to isolate contamination.

This new research could lead to exciting new discoveries in the areas of technology and biology. By studying the insects in-depth, humans could use the complex networks formed in ant colonies in developing transport and communication systems, such as mobile phone and computer networks. Work by Professor Mike Holcombe of the University�s Computer Science Department and colleagues has focused on developing computer models of the complex social systems of these ants and then using this approach to model many other complex systems in biology. Combining these computer models and biological experiments has lead to further understanding of how skin cells coordinate their position and shape to heal wounds and how individual cells in the human immune system work together to fight disease.

Professor Francis Ratnieks, from the University of Sheffield�s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and one of the researchers, said: "'There is much we can learn from the simple solutions ants have found for complex problems. Ants have been solving these problems for millions of years, while we humans have only just started to need to. This research provides a gateway to understanding and investigating major questions in science which will have major benefits to humans."

The Summer Science Exhibition is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK�s national academy of science. The event is free and open to the public. This year, 24 interactive exhibits will be on show presenting the best of UK science, engineering and technology. During the four days of the event, more than 4,000 people are expected to take up the opportunity to explore the exhibition.

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, added: "The Summer Science Exhibition is a celebration of the first-class research undertaken in the UK. The exhibition is a fascinating opportunity to experience first-hand the latest developments in science, engineering and technology and talk to scientists working at the forefront of scientific research. I hope the exhibition will enthuse the public as well as scientists and provide inspiration for the next generation considering a career in science."

- University of Sheffield�s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences


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The exhibit `Go to the ant and be wise� is part of the Royal Society�s annual Summer Science Exhibition which takes place at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG. It is free to the public. For more information visit www.royalsoc.org/exhibition

The research has been carried out by Professor Mike Holcombe, Dr Duncan Jackson, Professor Francis Ratnieks and Ms Elva Robinson, all from University of Sheffield, and Dr Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire.

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