Just when you think we know it all a wasp shows us the way.Â Imagine what else the natural world has to show us if we only took the time to look.
Wasps learned how to use sophisticated antibiotics millions of years before the invention of penicillin, research has shown.
Digger wasps of the family Philanthus, also known as ”beewolves”, harness beneficial bacteria to manufacture a cocktail of drugs that protect its larvae from infection.
Scientists who made the discovery believe it could assist the development of new agents to combat human ”superbugs”.
The era of antibiotics began in 1928 when Alexander Fleming spotted how penicillin produced by green mold killed bacteria.
But long before, Philanthus wasps were coating their cocoons with antibiotics to fight off harmful microbes.
The insects not only evolved a method of manufacturing antibiotics, they used them in a highly effective way, said the scientists writing in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.
Just as human experts have learned to do, the wasps combine different drugs that work together to destroy many different organisms.
The German researchers found that beewolves teamed up with a type of bacteria called Streptomyces in a symbiotic relationship that benefited both species.
In exchange for having a home, the bugs produced a cocktail of nine different antibiotics effective against a broad range of harmful bacteria and fungi.
Invading fungal mold and harmful bacteria are major threats to the wasp larvae. Conditions in the warm and humid wasps’ nests, which contain large amounts of organic material in the form of prey food, make them breeding grounds for infection.
Streptomyces can keep these potentially dangerous pathogens at bay.
Female beewolves cultivate the useful bugs in specialised antennal gland reservoirs and apply them to the ceilings of brood cells, said the scientists. The wasp larvae, growing in the cells, later take up the bacteria and transfer them to the outside surfaces of their cocoons.
Laboratory tests showed that the beewolves employed an advanced form of ”combination medication” using nine antibiotic varieties.
Johannes Kroiss, from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, said: ”A combined treatment with streptochlorin and eight different piericidines we were able to isolate from the cocoon helps to fend off a very broad spectrum of micro-organisms.
”This cannot be achieved with a single substance. This means that millions of years ago, beewolves and their symbionts have already evolved a strategy that is known from human medicine as combination prophylaxis.”
The method exploits the ”complementary or synergistic action” of two or more drugs, and is known to help prevent the development of resistant ”superbugs”, said the researchers.
Co-author Martin Kaltenpoth, who heads a Max Planck research group on ”insect-bacteria symbiosis”, said: ”We suppose that protective symbioses like the ones between beewolves and Streptomyces bacteria are much more common in the animal kingdom than previously assumed.
”An analysis of the substances involved not only contributes to the understanding of the evolution of such symbioses but could also lead to the discovery of interesting new drug candidates for human medicine.”