Sniffer ants can detect cancer

2 minute read

Ants learn a lot faster than dogs, researchers find.

Ants are amazing creatures. They can carry up to 20 times their body weight, they can form bridges using their own bodies and some species of ant can live for decades. 

Ants also have a very refined sense of smell and can tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue with half an hour of training. 


Researchers at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord trained 36 Formica fusca ants to detect a human ovarian cancer cell sample using a sugar reward. 

Training the ants took only about 30 minutes, whereas training sniffer dogs to detect cancer takes 6-12 months. 

The research, published in iScience, also looked at whether the ants could differentiate between two cancerous cell lines: the MCF-7 cell line and the MDA-MD-231 breast cancer cell line. 

It only took three training trials for the ants to catch on.

“Ants … represent a fast, efficient, inexpensive, and highly discriminant detection tool for detection of cancer cell volatiles,” the researchers concluded.

“Our approach could potentially be adapted to a range of other complex odour detection tasks including the detection of narcotics, explosives, spoiled food, or other diseases (malaria, infections, diabetes for instance).”

Damned overachievers

If you need a job done, ask a cooperative species with a brain the size of a grain of salt. Or ask your friendly Back Page columnist to lend a hand in return for story tips –

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