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Major recognition for research on metabolism of Dracula ant

23 March 2022
Systems biologist Bas Teusink of VU Amsterdam has been awarded a grant totalling over 1.1 million US dollars for research on how ants collaborate at a metabolic level. The grant has been awarded by the international Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) and covers a period of three years.

In this project, Teusink and his research group will work with scientists from the University of Fribourg and California Academy of Sciences to focus on the metabolism of Dracula ants. The aim of their research is to shed more light on the role of metabolism in social interactions and the evolution of cooperation, metabolic and otherwise.

Distribution of tasks
The different types or castes of ants in an anthill, such as the workers, the queen and the larvae, each have different metabolisms. The exact distribution depends on the species. As Teusink explains, “This process can be seen at its most spectacular in Dracula ants. The larvae are used as digestive organs, receiving food from the workers which then feed on the larvae’s haemolymph or blood. In other words, there is a metabolic division of labour between the castes. But what exactly do they exchange and why has this process evolved? Is it the most efficient way to digest or does it represent a unique social bond?”

To explore these questions, Teusink and his fellow researchers plan to deploy tools they developed in his Systems Biology Lab to address similar questions related to metabolism in microorganisms. “The beauty of the anthill is that these ‘walking organs’ and the substances they exchange lend themselves to measurement. This means that we can directly measure the interactions between them, something that is very difficult in microbial communities, but also in substance exchange between human organs for example,” Teusink says.

Human Frontier Science Program
The grant has been awarded as part of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). The program is designed to promote intercontinental collaboration in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences. A total of 32 research groups were awarded an HFSP grant this year. The groups underwent a rigorous one-year selection process in a global competition that attracted 716 applications involving scientists from more than 50 different countries.