Dogs are considered gifted sleuths, they smell drugs, explosives and now even diseases like cancer and malaria in the service of their masters and mistresses. But dog training takes a lot of time and patience, a sniffer dog needs up to a year before it can do its job reliably. Isn’t that easier – and cheaper? Yes, it works! Ants are also talented and really fast learners.
The animals smell volatile organic compounds
A proof-of-concept study from France suggests that ants need just 30 minutes of practice before they can smell cancer. Representatives of the ant species Formica fusca, which react to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), served as test subjects. In previous studies, researchers found that different cancers can be identified by their unique VOCs. The first tests focused on two types of breast cancer cells with different VOC profiles.
The success rate of the ants is comparable to that of the dogs
In just three training sessions, the scientists were able to teach the ants to distinguish between cancer cells and other cells. The success rate was ultimately in the same range as in dogs. “As a result, ants are comparable to dogs in terms of detection capacity – the most studied biodetectors,” the researchers write in the journal iScience. Instead of piles of dog food, these clever critters get a little honey and frozen bugs. They don’t want attention at all, walking is outdated. The fitness program can be performed by anyone after a training period of 3 days, no special ant coach is needed.
Further studies and VOC profiles needed
From previous studies, the researchers concluded that each ant can be used up to nine times to detect cancer cells. After that, the reactions will probably decrease. The researchers conclude their study with the words: “Our approach could potentially be adapted to a number of other complex odor detection tasks, including the detection of narcotics, explosives, spoiled food or other diseases (e.g. malaria, infections, diabetes)”. However, this needs to be tested and studied first, and the scientists still need the VOC profiles of the individual cancers to expand their experiments. So it will take some time before the sniffer ants wait in the doctor’s office or in the hospital.