Pogonomyrmex badius workers transporting a seed to add to their granary.

Ants are known for their strength, stings and tendency to work really hard. The famed biologist E.O. Wilson would prefer that more people know about the intricacies of ant life and how the colony can basically function as a superorganism. To the novice onlooker, ants may seem to be disorganized and moving about in random ways, but if one investigates further, they come to realize the elaborate and complex nature of an ant colony.

A 2015 study published in PLOS/ONE titled “Differentiated Anti-Predation Responses in a Superorganism” highlights the complex response to various predators in the ant “Temnothorax albipennis” and even compares their behavior to that of a functioning nervous system. Ants move with precision and purpose.

There are more than 13,000 species of ants that have been named, and it is estimated that 20,000 to 40,000 species exist on Earth today. They are a thriving and diverse group of animals that highlight the power of working together to achieve a goal. In many ant societies, jobs are divided up between them. The ants often behave in very distinct ways and even look quite different in appearance, though they are practically all clones genetically speaking. You can view each group of ants in a colony as the cells in your body as an analogy. Every cell in your body from those you are using to read this sentence to the ones that are currently pumping your blood have particular jobs and look extraordinarily different, yet they are all clones of the original cell, the zygote.

The genome of the more than 200 cell types in you and of the various types of ants in a colony may all be identical, but how the genome is expressed will vary immensely, and this is where the differences come from in epigenetics. Your heart and liver both have the gene to produce hair, but they are not hairy. That hair gene is effectively off in them while other genes are on. The pattern of which genes are active or deactivated in your cells is what makes them look and behave in different ways. The stories of how this all happens are now being told in science, and a recent article published on the Florida carpenter ant, Camponotus floridanus, tells one such story.

Researchers at the Epigenetics Institute of the University of Pennsylvania just published an article a few days ago in the journal “Molecular Cell” with the title “Epigenetic Regulator CoREST Controls Social Behavior in Ants.” The article is free to read if you Google it and want the full details.

The authors are basically reprogramming ants to change their behavior in the colony. Flip the genetic switch known as CoREST off or reduce its activity, and you get a soldier ant, but if you turn it up, you get a foraging ant.

CoRest is regulating the level of juvenile hormone in the ant, and depending on how much of that hormone is being made will determine the ant’s outcome, forager or soldier.

Imagine reprogramming cells in your body to behave differently and for instance, produce insulin when blood sugar levels rise.

Dr. Jack Brown is the Paris Junior College Science Division chairman. His science articles is published every Friday.

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