Ants? They are immersed in a world of smells. Some are even completely blind and rely precisely on their sense of smell to get their bearings. So much so that if they lose contact with the trail of pheromones “they end up marching in circles until they die of exhaustion,” writes the Washington Post in an article devoted to these insects’ refined sense of smell. Refined to the point that researchers “are now training ants to detect the smell of human cancer cells.” Like bloodhounds trained to detect truffles.

From what the Post reports, a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights this keen sense of ants for smells and points out how “one day we might use animals with refined noses-or, in the case of ants, with sensitive antennae-to quickly detect tumors,” a very important fact in relation to disease “because the earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chances of cure.”

But how does the procedure take place? The paper explains that by stretching out their pair of antennae, the insects “detect and distribute chemical signals to do almost everything”: find food, grab prey, locate mates in the same group, protect their young, a “chemical communication” that helps ants build complex societies of queens and workers that “operate so in sync with the scent” that scientists have dubbed some colonies as “superorganisms.”

So far their aptitude, but technically for the purposes of research and study, Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany, “grafted pieces of a human breast tumor onto mice and trained 35 ants to associate the urine of rodents carrying the sugar tumor”: placed in a capsule the silky ants “spent much more time near the tubes with urine from ‘sick’ mice than urine from healthy ones.”

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