Cooperative Disease Defenses in Insect Societies

Sylvia Cremer

Sylvia Cremer is an Evolutionary Biologist interested in behavioral ecology and evolutionary immunology in ant societies. With her team, she studies individual and collective anti-pathogen defenses of ants, by a combination of behavioral observations, physiological and molecular measures of immunity, and chemical analyses.

Colonies of social insects, like other societies, face the problem of a high risk of disease transmission among the group members. This is primarily due to close interactions and high within colony densities. Despite this risk, epidemics occur extremely rarely in the colonies of social insects (e.g. bees, ants, termites), as they have evolved collective anti-pathogen defenses that complement the individual immune systems of group members. This "social immunity" comprises a) hygiene behaviors, such as mutual allogrooming, b) joint physiological defenses, as the production and application of antimicrobial substances and c) the modulation of interaction types and frequencies upon exposure of group members to pathogens.

The Cremer group studies all aspects of social immune defenses in ants to learn more about disease management and epidemiology in societies.

Contact
Sylvia Cremer
Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria)
Am Campus 1
A – 3400 Klosterneuburg

Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000-3401
E-mail: sylvia.cremer@remove-this.ist.ac.at

CV & publication list

Cremer Group website

Assistant
Sigrid Pratsch

Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000-1124
E-mail: sigrid.pratsch@remove-this.ist.ac.at

Team

Previous Group Members

Current Projects

  • Social vaccination
    When individual ants get sick, their nestmates take care of them. We found that these helpers do not necessarily run the risk of contracting the disease themselves, but can even receive an immune protection by “social vaccination”. We currently try to understand both the molecular mechanisms and the effects for the society structure of this social vaccination.
  • Pathogen detection abilities
    Ants show the amazing feature of being able to detect the presence of pathogens in their colonies even before these could implement an infection. We study the pathogen detection abilities of ants and determine how these are affected by reduction in the genetic diversity of colonies by e.g. inbreeding effects.
  • Host-parasite coevolution
    Parasites and pathogens can quickly adapt to their hosts, which – on the other hand – develop better defence strategies. We are interested in the dynamics of these coevolutionary arms races in social hosts such as ants.
  • Experience in hygienic tasks
    Ants often specialize on specific tasks within the colony given their age, genetic thresholds, or experience. We test if experience also plays a role in the performance level and the efficiency of hygienic tasks, especially hygienic brood care.
  • Epidemiology
    Disease spread occurs along routes of high numbers of interactions and can thus be modeled by e.g. traffic networks. We use the social interaction networks of ants to both apply and further develop epidemiological models of disease spread. This joint approach combining experimental work and theoretical modeling is used to gain insight into disease spread in societies.

Funding for these projects: ERC Starting Grant, German Research Foundation DFG (SPP 1399 Host-Parasite Coevolution), DAAD Procope Scheme, Junge Akadamie, IST Austria

Career
2010         Assistant Professor IST Austria      
2006-2010 Group Leader / Habilitation, University of Regensburg, Germany
2006         Junior Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, Berlin, Germany
2002-2006 Postdoc, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
1998-2002 Dr. rer. nat. (PhD), University of Regensburg, Germany

Selected Distinctions

2011 Elected member of the "Junge Kurie" (Young Academy) of the Austrian Acadamy of Sciences (ÖAW)
2009 ERC Starting Grant
2008 Elected member of the "Junge Akademie" (Young Academy) of the German National Academy of Sciences Leoplodina and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (BBAW)

Selected Publications

  • Konrad, M., Vyleta, M.L., Theis, F.J., Tragust, S., Stock, M., Klatt, M., Drescher, V., Marr, C., Ugelvig, L.V. & Cremer, S. (2012) Social Transfer of Pathogenic Fungus Promotes Active Immunisation in Ant Colonies. PLoS Biology 10(4): e1001300
  • Ugelvig, L.V., Kronauer, D.J.C., Schrempf A., Heinze, J. & Cremer, S. (2010) Rapid anti-pathogen response in ant societies relies on high genetic diversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277, 2821-2828
  • Ugelvig. L.V. & Cremer, S. (2007) Social prophylaxis: group interaction promotes collective immunity in ant colonies. Current Biology 17, 1967-1971
  • Schrempf, A., Heinze, J. & Cremer, S. (2005): Sexual cooperation: mating increases longevity in ant queens. Current Biology 15, 267-270
  • Cremer, S. & Heinze, J. (2003): Stress grows wings: environmental induction of winged dispersal males in Cardiocondyla ants. Current Biology 13, 219-223
  • Cremer, S., Sledge, M.F. & Heinze, J. (2002): Male ants disguised by the queen’s bouquet. Nature, 419, 897

Selected Reviews

  • Cremer, S. & Sixt, M. (2009) Analogies in the evolution of individual and social immunity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 129-142
  • Cremer, S., Armitage, S.A.O. & Schmid-Hempel, P. (2007) Social Immunity. Current Biology 17, R693-R702

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