Heidi Horn, Research Assistant
Department of Bacteriology
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Phone (608) 890-0237
Heidi Horn talks about leaf cutter ants and their value in discovering new antibiotics.
3:03 – Total Time
0:15 – Connecting insects to medicine
0:46 – Antibiotics found in ant colonies
1:05 – Long time from the ant to the market
1:25 – About the ants
1:42 – Searching for ants
2:21 – Keeping Panama ants alive in Wisconsin
2:41 – For more information
2:55 – Lead out
Sevie Kenyon: Bugs and drugs, we are visiting today with Heidi Horn Department of Bacteriology University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Sevie Kenyon.
Heidi, how do we connect bugs with medicine?
Heidi Horn: I know it seems like a strange, strange connection, but our lab is actually doing that every day. We actually study a tropical ant called leaf cutter ants, and they are very cool in many ways. They actually grow a fungus for their food so they are farmers, but it gets even cooler than that. They have an association with a bacterium that makes an antibiotic that protects them so we use antibiotics when we go to the doctor and so almost in the same sense the ants are using antibiotics.
Sevie Kenyon: And your research is looking for?
Heidi Horn: New antibiotics, we’ve actually found several new antibiotics from looking at the ant system. It’s interesting because each colony is producing slightly different antibiotics so we think if we look through different colonies and even if we go beyond and look at different insects we might be able to find new antibiotics.
Sevie Kenyon: How long does it take to get from an ant out to the market?
Heidi Horn: Actually quite a long time, about ten to fifteen years. Once we find a new antibiotic we have to go through a whole process before it can be used in human use. We have to test it in mice to see if it’s toxic, we have to test against organisms to see if it’s active against different diseases.
Sevie Kenyon: And Heidi, tell us a little bit about the ants. Where are they found, how do they live?
Heidi Horn: So they’re tropical ants so they live in Central and South America. They tend to live in the rainforest or the savannahs. They cut leaves that they feed to their fungus gardens, so they have to be in an area that has a lot of leaf material.
Sevie Kenyon: Heidi perhaps you can describe the process of finding the ants in the forest and then doing the research.
Heidi Horn: You have to love nature, I have to say that, so you’re out in the forest and you’re looking for these colonies and sometimes it’s really difficult. You are looking for maybe one ant going down the path, and then you find this one ant and you follow her back to her colony and then once we find her colony we excavate it. So we start digging until we find the fungus chamber, the fungus chamber is very distinct looking, and so we collect all of it, we collect the queen and the workers and then we actually bring them back. We keep them in the lab and we start culturing bacteria and culturing the fungus and looking at how these interactions are really working and what’s going on.
Sevie Kenyon: How do you keep ants from a place like Panama alive here in Wisconsin!?
Heidi Horn: It’s difficult sometimes especially in the winter, we have a temperature controlled room. We actually freeze leaves that we feed them in the winter times so there’s no fresh leaves during the winter so during the summer we go and collect maple and oak leaves and we freeze them. We have two freezers full of leaves for the ants.
Sevie Kenyon: If people are interested in these ants and your research, where can they go for more information?
Heidi Horn: We have a great website and we also have a link to an ant cam, so you can actually watch the ants as they work in our lab. So if you search for Currie Lab, its’ C-U-R-R-I-E, you should be able to find it easily.
Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting today with Heidi Horn, Department of Bacteriology University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Sevie Kenyon.