Carpenter Ants’ Behavior Can Be Modified Using Epigenetic Drugs, Study Finds

Posted: Jan 2 2016, 9:39am CST | by , Updated: Jan 2 2016, 12:30pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
Carpenter Ants’ Behavior Can be Modified Using Epigenetic Drugs, Study Finds
Florida carpenter ants, minor and major. Credit: University of Pennysylvania

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After injecting chemical compounds, major ants starts to behave like minors.

Carpenter ants are social insects that live in colonies. They have so-called majors in them that protect the colony and small minors that search for food.

Researchers have found that their roles are not fixed. Their social behavior can be reprogrammed using epigenetic drugs. These drugs can modify social behavior without changing DNA sequence.

By injecting chemical compounds in ants, researchers were able to make major ants behave like minors. But their physical appearance cannot be altered as majors still remained larger than minors.

“These are long-term, permanent changes that occur when we inject the brain with these chemicals.” Shelley Berger, co-author from University of Pennsylvania said.

Carpenter ants are ideal for studying social behavior because each colony is comprised of thousands of ants with a queen and numberless worker female ants. All ants have nearly identical genetic makeup and their physical traits and behaviors are dependent upon their caste. Major ants have large heads and powerful jaws which they use to defeat their enemies while minor ants are smaller and perfectly capable of finding food.

Study reveals that epigenetic regulation is the key for distribution of roles in ants. By changing the balance of epigenetic chemicals, their behaviors can be directly altered.

“The results suggest that behavioral malleability in ants and likely other animals may be regulated in an epigenetic manner via histone modification.” Lead author Daniel Simola said.

Histone is basic protein that could create dramatic differences in gene expression between genetically identical individuals.

“Because of the remarkable window we have uncovered, ants also provide an extraordinary opportunity to explore and understand the epigenetic processes that come into play to establish behavioral patterns at a young age.” Authors write.

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