Monday, May 10, 2010

Inbreeding Is Bad for Ant Immunity

Inbreeding Is Bad for Ant Immunity
When it comes to ant immunity, the colony is the body. Much like the billions of immune cells that protect us from disease, the horde of ants in a colony coat their nest in antibacterial resin to ward off pathogens. Now, scientists have found more intriguing parallels. For the first time, they have observed ant colonies removing infected larvae to prevent the spread of sickness, a behavior analogous to white blood cells ridding the body of dangerous pathogens and previously seen only in bees. And just like inbred humans and purebred pets, inbred ant colonies have weaker "immune systems": they're slow to detect disease and remove infected larvae, putting the entire population at risk.

2 comments:

  1. Well let me be the first to comment :) BTW "me" = "j_random_hacker" = "Tim who sits next to you".

    I remember when I first realised that "a physically connected group of cells" was not the only way an organism could be usefully defined. When you look at what we "want to mean" by the word "organism", we want to capture something more general I think -- perhaps that an organism is something that (a) is alive in some sense and (b) is directed toward the continuation of its own life in some sense. It just happens that physical connectivity correlates well with these ideas. But as ants and bees point out, it's not necessary.

    It's also interesting to consider an organism as something continuous through time, across reproductive cycles. When a mother gives birth, on what account do we say there are now two organisms? Under a different interpretation, many organisms can live for ever.

    I want to propose that cells, organisms, communities, species are just local peaks in a continuum of co-dependence between elementary particles. I.e. you can imagine a function whose input is any subset of all the particles in the universe, and whose output is a number reflecting the extent to which that set of particles depend on each other to maintain the structure that they currently have. This function measures the "organismness" of any arbitrary clump of matter. But I can't think of a way to express the structure that those particles preserve.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're reminding me of the conversation between Achilles and the Tortoise about conversing with ant colonies from Goedel Escher Bach.

    ReplyDelete