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Thursday
Feb162017

Gene-Modified Ants Give Insight into Animal Societies and Human Disease

You would probably name a dolphin or a tiger as one of your favorite animals rather than an ant, but ants are one of the most underrated animals out there! They are very social animals, have an amazing sense of smell, and are incredibly sensitive to their social environment. Ants have recently been discovered to behave like a liquid and a solid when they swarm together (what other animal can do that?), and now some studies suggest ants could be used as an animal model for understanding complex biological systems.

Daniel Kronauer and his colleagues at Rockefeller University have created the first transgenic ants by manipulating the DNA of Cerapachys biroi, clonal raider ants, to become hyposocial and avoid others in the colony. These researchers have also identified the molecular and neural cues that spur the decisions to feed the young, breed young, or kill nestmates who miss colony cues and breed out of turn. Kronauer compares ants in a colony to a multicellular organism or neurons in the brain, where labor is synchronized and their fates are joined together as a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

When Kronauer and colleagues knocked out one kind of odorant, or smell, receptor genes in some of the ants they found that they had no trouble finding food, but avoided socializing with the colony. This suggests that olfactory receptors were key components to the evolution of ant sociality. Other experiments suggested that pheromones from newborn larvae stimulate production of intocin, the ant equivalent of oxytocin, and spur the adults to stop laying eggs and leave the nest to find food for the larvae. In fact, Kronauer found that the ants who had the greatest number of intocin neurons were the first ones to venture out of the nest. Olfactory signals seem to be incredibly important in a functioning ant society, and those who fail to respond to the cues are actually killed. When an ant’s ovaries don’t shut down in response to the larvae pheromones, other ants can smell the difference and will pull the offending ant out of the nest and literally pull it apart. The hypothesis behind why it is important to kill an ant that misses the breeding cues, is that in a multicellular organism you just can’t have components that don’t respond to the regulatory cues and start replicating out of control. Essentially, the policing ants act like the body’s immune system and the rebel ant is akin to a cancer cell that the body tries to eradicate before it gets out of control. With a model like C. biroi, which act like a strict multicellular system and are so sensitive to their social environment, it might be possible discover something about human diseases like cancer or even something fundamental about depression or autism. I don’t think I will ever look at ants the same way again!

-BH

References:

1.     http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/animals/a17925/ants-behave-like-liquids-and-solids/

2.     https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/science/gene-modified-ants.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

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