Scientists Trained Ants to Smell Cancer

You’ve heard of drug-sniffing dogs, but what about ants? That an idea French scientists recently pitched. Their research shows ants can be reliably trained more quickly and less expensively than man’s best friend. Ants have a keen sense of smell, perhaps the best of any animal on Earth. And it turns out that a little bit of positive reinforcement conditions them to seek out certain odors, including cancerous cells.

Ant Formica fusca on a petri dish
Paul Devienne/Laboratoire d’éthologie expérimentale et comparée de l’Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Scientists gave the ants sugar when they went near a certain target, in this case cancerous human cells. It only took a few repetitions before the ants reliably moved towards that same cell. The researchers then upped the stakes, giving the ants options. Still, they moved towards the cell they trained on instead of healthy human cells. When presented with cells from different forms of cancer, the ants again moved towards the one that they associated with a sugary reward. The peer-reviewed journal iScience published the results, which we saw at DesignTAXI.

Trials with dogs began in much the same manner, with positive reinforcement associated with a certain smell. Tests then became more difficult. Trained dogs can now identify specific types of cancer and other diseases. Human cancer cells release different odors and dogs can tell them apart through smelling human breath. There are also dogs trained to detect COVID-19. These steps take time and money. To train the dogs, yes, but also to train the humans who work with the dogs to maintain their skills.

Two ants crawl on some greenery, for article about cancer detection
Paul Devienne/Laboratoire d’Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée at ‘Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

The scientists propose that ants are the solution. Both the humans and the ants require less training. Reliable results only take a matter of minutes rather than the months dog training requires. The next step is to test whether this could also apply to other smells like explosives, drugs, and other diseases like malaria and diabetes. It may not be in place by the next time you go through airport security, but trained ants could put dogs out of work.

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