Even ants smell better than we do

Photo by Egor Kamelev

A recently published study has announced that ants can be trained to detect the presence of cancer in humans (“An ant’s sense of smell is so strong, it can sniff out cancer”, Dino Grandoni, 1/24/2023) . Their thin antennae detect chemicals in a very specific way:

Stretching out their pair of thin sensory appendages atop their heads, the insects detect and deploy chemical cues to do almost everything — find food, swarm prey, spot colony mates, protect young. This chemical communication helps ants construct complex societies of queens and workers that operate so in sync with scent that scientists dub some colonies “superorganisms.”

Dino Grandoni

The type of ants used in the study are called ‘silky ants’ (Formica fusca), an evocative name that unfortunately doesn’t translate to their actual appearance, which is predictably true to form. Regardless, silky ants distinguish themselves with their ability to learn very quickly: they need only one interaction to form a scent memory and use it reliably, which no doubt made the ants appealing to this research.

A nose by another name would smell as sweet

I love this story because it upends my preconceptions about how animals smell. Given my umwelt (the world as perceived by an organism; h/t to Ed Yong’s book, “An Immense World” for teaching me this concept), I unthinkingly assume smells are detected by something that works like a nose: air is taken in, along with the chemicals floating in it, and chemical odor compounds pass by receptors that elicit chemical interactions with the olfactory lobe. The antennae of the ant seem to act more directly: they don’t need an intake of air to collect the chemical compounds associated with smell and ‘read’ it.

That a non-canine species can also detect the VOCs associated with cancer in humans is just further confirmation that the natural world contains a universe of knowledge if we chose to tap into it. How many species rely on smell to survive? The world is abundant in its means of knowing, if we open ourselves to other ways of knowing our world.

Yet my cursory review of the comments to the Washington Post article sinks my heart just as quickly as it rose. There are comments from those who, like me, experienced the wonder of appreciating part of nature’s abundance. Also weighing in are critics who immediately reject ideas new to them, and those whose knee-jerk reaction is to use this information to build a technical imitation.

Surmounting human limitations

You, like me, have likely experienced either first-hand or with loved ones the limitations of our technical defenses against cancer. To be  effective, current medical technologies require a magical alignment of variables to save lives: the disease must be detected early, so the patient must have access to early detection, be able to afford it, and be willing to undergo the physical and mental difficulties of the detection test. Despite centuries of effort and advanced technology that we take for granted, we haven’t been able to eliminate chance from disease detection in any meaningful way.

Most of the limitations we experience in fighting disease are of our own making. Were the profit motive removed, what would be possible? Early, reliable illness detection would need to be readily accessible, inexpensive, and easy. Most likely, the solution would come from nature rather than conceived by humans, since natural solutions are measured in millennia and human solutions in years. What we dream of could be possible, by reaching beyond our umwelt.

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