The research of James Waters and Jon Harrison from Arizona State University on ant metabolism was recently featured in a press release from The American Physiological Society.
Mr. Waters and Dr. Harrison have measured the standard metabolic rates of individual ants as well as whole ant colonies. What they found was that the colony produced only 75% of the by-products that would be produced by individual ants if each lived in isolation. In other words, the metabolism of the colony was less than the sum of each individual ant’s metabolism. Moreover, they found that larger colonies had lower metabolic rates than smaller colonies. It is so fascinating that the metabolism of an ant colony scales at 0.75 since this scaling exponent holds for many organisms and appears to be conserved in nature.
In the press release, Mr. Waters describes how these findings in ants might be relevant to human health. According to Waters, because ant colonies behave metabolically like individual organisms, studying how a colony’s size changes its metabolism could offer useful insight for developing theories about medication dosage in humans. “It’s hard to figure out how size affects metabolic rate in individuals because it’s not easy to change an individual’s size,” he said. “With an ant colony, it’s as easy as adding or removing individual ants.”
This is not to say that ant colonies function like individual humans. Rather, ant colonies could serve as a model for testing theories about the role of networks among cells in human metabolism. He continues: “We’ve got this pattern where the larger an organism is, the slower its metabolism, and we don’t really understand why,” said Mr. Waters. “It’s important to find out because we really don’t have any sort of theoretical basis for deciding the right dose of medication. We can do charts on weight, and we can run tests on animals, but it’s really more alchemy than science.”
Waters’ research interests focus on evolutionary and comparative physiology, social insect colony energetics, allometric scaling of metabolic rate, interaction network motifs, imaging methods, modeling gas exchange, and insect biomechanics. I think the publications and abstracts are interesting.