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Name: dana
Status: student
Grade: 9-12
Location:  PA
Country: N/A
Date: March 2006

Question:
Hi,

I'm a highschool freshman student participating in the science fair hosted by the Carnegie this year, and had a few questions. The experiment I'm doing for this fair tested which which artificial sweeteners ants were most attracted to in order to find out which ones were safest for human consumption. I set out sugar water as the control, and solutions of Splenda, Equal, Sweet n' Low, and Stevia extract. Stevia extract is a naturally occurring sweetener found in a plant from South America, and my hypothesis was that ants would attracted to that, the Splenda and the Sugar. I sat for 30 minutes a day in front of the Petri dishes with the solutions for 5 days, and found that ants were most attracted to the sugar water, and none of the artificial sweeteners.

My question is, why is this? I assumed it was because ants were around for millions of years, so they are experts on survival, and they would know which sweetener would be the safest for consumption. How does an ant know white refined sugar is a from of energy opposed to the artificial sweeteners? If it is "programmed" in their genes, then why do goats or dogs eat junk food? Does it have something to do with the size of the brain or intelligence? What chemicals in sugar attract the ants?? Are they the same chemicals as there are in artificial sweeteners? What chemical in sugar makes it sweet?



Replies:
Interesting experiment. You have a host of questions, each of which could take up a serious amount of time to address...and probably not yeild a definitive anwer. I will address the most important issue which u seemed to have overlooked. What would be the next set of experiments? One thing is for ceratain...loads of research have been done on what ants are attracted to and how they sense food sources. I suggest you search the literature...this should have been done prior to experimentation, but better later than not at all. if you find they have a certain detection system, you might try and block it or mask it. Devise proper controlled experiments. You stated you had sugar water as a control....how about other controls such as just water, empty petri dishes, changing locations of controls. I might also suggest dose reponse levels for all the substances...that is, petri dishes with increasing amounts of each substance....it might be the levels of substances you used were below detectable levels for the ants. Were the petri dishes with different substance in the same vicinity, illiciitng a preference situation? As you can see, what might seem simple is far more complex. Lastly, believe in your data but make sure to limit any conclusions to the limits of your experimental situation. So far, from how you have described your work, you can make very few if any conclusions, but that just means there is more exciting work to be done.

Pf


The ants have taste receptors for sucrose (the chemical that makes up table sugar), but not for the artificial sweeteners. They don't respond to the artificial sweeteners simply because they cannot taste them, not because they "know" it is less healthy for them or because of intelligence. We taste sugar as sweet, because sucrose molecules bind to specific sites on our tongue that then send a signal to the brain saying "that's sweet". Artificial sweeteners work for us (and I would guess for other mammals) because they can bind to the same sites on our tongues. Ants taste sugar similarly to us with their mouths and sometimes antennae, but the chemicals in artificial sweeteners do not bind to their tasting organs.

Aurora Toennisson
Entomology and Plant Pathology
University of Tennessee



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