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Archive - Sep 3, 2017

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Scientists Engineer Mutant Ants That Shed Light on Evolution of Social Behavior

Ants run a tight ship. They organize themselves into groups with very specific tasks: foraging for food, defending against predators, building tunnels, etc. An enormous amount of coordination and communication is required to accomplish this. To explore the evolutionary roots of the remarkable system, researchers at The Rockefeller University have created the first genetically altered ants, modifying a gene essential for sensing the pheromones that ants use to communicate. The result, severe deficiencies in the ants’ social behaviors and their ability to survive within a colony, both sheds light on a key facet of social evolution and demonstrates the feasibility and utility of genome editing in ants. “It was well known that ant language is produced through pheromones, but now we understand a lot more about how pheromones are perceived,” says Dr. Daniel Kronauer, Head of the Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior. “The way ants interact is fundamentally different from how solitary organisms interact, and with these findings we know a bit more about the genetic evolution that enabled ants to create structured societies.” The most important class of pheromones in ant communication is that of hydrocarbons, which can communicate species, colony, and caste identity, as well as reproductive status. These pheromone signals are detected by porous sensory hairs on the ants’ antennae that contain what are called odorant receptors—proteins that recognize specific chemicals and pass the signal up to the brain. Work in the Kronauer lab, led by graduate student Sean McKenzie and published in PNAS in late 2016, has shown that a group of odorant receptor genes, known as 9-exon-alpha ORs, are responsible for sensing hydrocarbons in the clonal raider ant species Ooceraea biroi.