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Institute of Science and Technology, Austria
Social insects fight disease as a collective. When colony members get exposed to pathogens, their nestmates perform highly sophisticated sanitary care, e.g. by grooming off infectious particles or by applying antimicrobials for disinfection. Whilst this sanitary care drastically reduces the probability of the exposed individuals to fall sick, it comes at the risk for the helpers to contract the disease themselves. We found that pathogen transmission during sanitary care occurs frequently in ants, but is often limited to such low levels that the helpers only develop asymptomatic low-level infections. These low-level infections induce an immune-stimulation and can have protective effects upon secondary challenge with the same pathogen, meaning that social contact to exposed nestmates provides "social immunization". We study (i) whether low-level infections can also provide cross-protection towards other pathogens, and (ii) if they affect the sanitary behavior of the ants.