Distributed adaptive search in T Cells: Lessons from ants

Melanie E. Moses, Judy L. Cannon, Deborah M. Gordon, Stephanie Forrest

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


There are striking similarities between the strategies ant colonies use to forage for food and immune systems use to search for pathogens. Searchers (ants and cells) use the appropriate combination of random and directed motion, direct and indirect agent-agent interactions, and traversal of physical structures to solve search problems in a variety of environments. An effective immune response requires immune cells to search efficiently and effectively for diverse types of pathogens in different tissues and organs, just as different species of ants have evolved diverse search strategies to forage effectively for a variety of resources in a variety of habitats. Successful T cell search is required to initiate the adaptive immune response in lymph nodes and to eradicate pathogens at sites of infection in peripheral tissue. Ant search strategies suggest novel predictions about T cell search. In both systems, the distribution of targets in time and space determines the most effective search strategy. We hypothesize that the ability of searchers to sense and adapt to dynamic targets and environmental conditions enhances search effectiveness through adjustments to movement and communication patterns. We also suggest that random motion is a more important component of search strategies than is generally recognized. The behavior we observe in ants reveals general design principles and constraints that govern distributed adaptive search in a wide variety of complex systems, particularly the immune system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1357
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Issue numberJUN
StatePublished - 2019


  • Adaptive search
  • Ant foraging
  • Ant inspired algorithms
  • Collective search
  • T cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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