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A species of ant has been discovered to rescue and tend to the battle wounds of other ants injured while hunting, and scientists think that this is the first time this behavior has ever been observed in insects.

Thumbnail photo by Erik T. Franks

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Sources:
https://www.eurekalert.org/emb_releases/2018-02/uow-mcf020918.php
http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2457
http://www.gorongosa.org/explore-park/wildlife/micro-world/matabele-ants
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180208141346.htm
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6376/693.full
https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/08/584330475/major-psychiatric-disorders-have-more-in-common-than-we-thought-study-finds
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0024757/
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/major-mental-illnesses-unexpectedly-share-brain-gene-activity-raising-hope-better
♪Intro♪.

If you’re ever seriously hurt, you can probably go to a hospital and get help. But animals don’t have doctors.

If they’re injured, wounds can get infected pretty quickly or mean impending doom. Except… that might not necessarily be true for one species of ant. In a paper published this week, researchers from Germany have discovered that the African.

Matabele ants tend to each other’s open wounds after vicious battles with termites. And they think it’s the first time a behavior like this has ever been observed in insects. Two to four times every day, Matabele ants hunt termites.

A scout ant finds a vulnerable nest of termites and then leads a raiding party back to it. But termites have powerful jaws, called mandibles, so these raids are pretty dangerous for the ants. They often end up with one or more of their six legs bitten off.

Scientists already knew that these wounded ants secrete pheromones from glands in their mandibles that act as calls for help, attracting their friends to carry them home. And now, thanks to a combination of lab and field experiments, we also know what happens next. Very badly injured ants — who have lost almost all of their limbs — are left behind, because they thrash around so much that helper ants can’t carry them.

Ants that are less badly injured — like if they’re missing one or two legs — keep still, cooperate with their rescuers, and are more likely to be carried back. This keeps resources from being wasted on lost causes. Once an injured ant gets home, other ants lick their wounds for several minutes.

Ants don’t really have tongues, but they carefully clean the injuries with their mouthparts. According to these experiments, ants that lose limbs and don’t receive this treatment have about an 80% chance of dying. But with the licking, that number drops to 10%.

The researchers think this treatment helps reduce the chance of infection in open wounds, removing dirt and debris that could carry pathogens. And while this hasn’t been tested yet, it’s possible the ants could be applying some sort of antimicrobial substance as well. Once they heal up, ants that still have four or five legs left can get around just fine and contribute to the colony.

So this treatment isn’t just out of the goodness of their hearts — it’s a useful adaptation. Those wounded veterans are still expected to earn their keep. Ant medicine may be full of surprises, but we’re still learning a lot about human medicine, too.

And a study published in the journal Science this month gleaned some new insight into brain disorders. Many medical conditions can be diagnosed based on physical signs, like a rash or a tumor. But psychiatric conditions are different.

Doctors can’t spot them on a brain scan; they have to be diagnosed based on feelings and behaviors. We know that certain gene variations are linked to risks for certain psychiatric disorders, but that part of biology involves a lot of questions, and not very many answers. All of your cells have the same DNA, so sequencing your genome can reveal what gene variants you have.

But analyzing all the RNA in a cell, which is called a transcriptome, actually shows which genes are being expressed. That’s because the information stored in DNA is decoded into RNA to make all the different proteins our bodies need. Cells in different organs need different proteins, and therefore different active genes, to do their jobs.

But other things, like environments you’ve been exposed to, could affect gene expression too — including genes in brain cells, where tiny chemical changes can affect how you think, feel, and act. This new study combined data from nine previous studies to form a meta-analysis of 700 brain tissue samples from deceased people. Specifically, the researchers were looking at RNA in cerebral cortex tissue — the surface structure in the brain that’s involved in a lot of information processing and decision making.

The tissue samples came from patients with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and alcoholism, and some brains of people without any diagnosed disorders for comparison. Using a lot of math, the scientists used all this transcriptome data to look for patterns of gene expression. These are all different disorders with different symptoms, so it would make sense to think that their causes and effects in brain cells would vary, as well.

But learning if and how these conditions overlap might give scientists new hints about how to help these patients. And some patterns the researchers found caught them by surprise. For instance, bipolar disorder and depression were fairly distinct, even though they’re both considered mood disorders and share some symptoms.

Alcoholism also had basically no overlap with any of these other disorders, despite previous studies that suggested that alcoholism and depression might share some genetic risk factors. Schizophrenia and autism, on the other hand, showed some similarities. With both disorders, patients seemed to express fewer genes for communication between neurons and more genes related to inflammation.

And inflammation-related genes were extra active in the autism brain samples, adding to evidence that gene overexpression could play a role in that condition. There are other small results too, but no huge takeaways yet. Mostly, this study is another step toward learning how brain functions can go wrong.

Transcriptome research won’t actually help with diagnoses and treatments until we do a lot more of it, and on more specific parts of human brains. But by gradually learning about how psychiatric disorders might affect brains biologically, researchers hope to develop more effective treatments someday. Thanks for joining me for SciShow News, and a special thanks to Patreon President of Space.

Matthew Brant. Without Matthew and all of our patrons on Patreons, we wouldn’t be able to make SciShow and bring you all up to date science news. ♪Outro♪.