Researchers genetically alter behavior of carpenter ants

Research teams from three American universities recently published a new study showing that carpenter ants can be reprogrammed to change social behavior within the colony by manipulating the chemicals that regulate genetic expression.

The study was published in the latest edition of the journal Science. Shelley Berger of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania served as lead on the project, where she collaborated with Juergen Liebig from Arizona State University and Danny Reinberg at New York University.

Researchers focused on Florida’s population of carpenter ant colonies, which are divided into distinct classes – worker and soldier ants. These castes both have a certain model of behavior based on their caste, and the study indicates that those behaviors are influenced epigenetic factors. In other words, although worker and soldier carpenter ants are nearly identical genetically, there are certain parts of their genetic code that are activated by different environmental factors. Those differences in which genes are being activated in turn dictate the class behavior in the ants.

Berger, Liebig and Reinberg introduced different enzyme compounds that essentially reprogrammed the ants’ foraging behavior by activating different parts of the genetic code.

“The results suggest that behavioral malleability in ants, and likely other animals, may be regulated in an epigenetic manner via histone modification,” Daniel Simola, a post-doctoral researcher working alongside Berger on the project at Penn, said.

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