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Epigenetics rules the ant kingdom

Typically in an ant colony, roles are split among workers based on their physical characteristics.  There are two major paths for workers of a colony.  One type, which consists of about one-third of the workers, are called majors.  The other workers are smaller and are called minors.  Minors typically forage for food much more often compared to the majors, who are much larger in comparison to their counterpart. 

What researchers have discovered about the caste system in a colony of carpenter ants is that both the size and the occupation that the worker ants acquire are based on epigenetic characteristics in their DNA.  Researchers at University of Pennsylvania conducted a study in which they administered two mood-stabilizing drugs to specific subjects within the colony through brain injection. After, they observed their overall foraging and scouting behavior.  Overall, they found that after an increase in histone acetylation (through the use of the bipolar drug) in the ants, minors foraged more aggressively and starting scouting for new food.  Majors began to exhibit foraging behavior, which is a characteristic usually only seen in minors. The effects of the drug treatment lasted for up to 50 days. They also found that the overall ability to change the behavior was greater in younger workers, suggesting a timeframe in which ants are more susceptible to being influenced by drug treatment at a younger age. 

More importantly, this research suggests a possible mechanism to the nurture component in the nature versus nurture dispute.  It also highlights the importance of epigenetic markers and the need for more research in epigenetics. In addition, researchers think that certain social situations could influence epigenetic changes in vertebrate species, giving clues to biologic mechanisms involved in social interactions and behaviors.

"Epigenetic (re)programming of Caste-specific Behavior in the Ant Camponotus Floridanus." Science 351.6268. 2015.

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