Diseases are easily transmitted within social groups, as large numbers of related individuals live closely together and frequently interact with one another. Groups, in particularly the large colonies of social insects, may therefore be expected to be highly sensitive to infectious diseases, and to be "easy victims" for epidemics. But social groups also have a much higher potential to counteract parasites and pathogens than solitary individuals, which solely rely on their individual innate immune system and behavioural defence mechanisms. In groups, individuals can prevent others from infection through mutual hygienic behaviour, and reduce spreading of disease by efficient waste management. Territorial aggression further aids avoidance of disease transmission between neighbouring groups.
The purpose of this study is to understand the organisation of the collective immune defences in insect societies that integrate individual immune systems and behavioural defences of all group members to a higher level: the "social immune system". I will analyse, which individuals are doing the risky job of handling infectious material, and whether this decision leads to conflicts between group members. A comparative study of the open societies of invasive ants and the clonal groups existing in some ant species will further reveal, how genetic diversity within and between groups influences their investment into innate and behavioural disease defences respectively.
My current work on the social and genetic structure of the European invasive garden ant and the well established know-how of the host institute with a clonal ant will make this project feasible. The new focus of my work on the interplay of physiological and behavioural immune defences will allow me to develop my own research profile and to re-integrate into the German University system.
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