Epigenetic Alterations Determine Ant Behavior

Histone modifications to the DNA of Florida carpenter ants can turn soldiers into foragers.

By | January 4, 2016

A carpenter antWIKIMEDIA, BOB PETERSONTweaking the proteins that control how tightly DNA is wound can dramatically alter behavior in Florida carpenter ant workers, according to researchers who manipulated the biochemistry of the insects. Worker ants called majors—larger individuals that typically guard the colony—can be made to act more like so-called minors—smaller ants that serve as foragers—simply by introducing chemicals that alter chromatin proteins called histones without changing underlying DNA. “These are long-term, permanent changes that occur when we inject the brain with these chemicals,” University of Pennsylvania biologist Shelley Berger, a coauthor on the study published in Science last week (January 1), told The New York Times.

Berger and her collaborators chemically altered histone structure in the brains of young majors using small-molecule inhibitors of histone deacetylases or small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). Newly hatched majors injected with these histone-modifying chemicals exhibited minor-like foraging behavior for up to 50 days. Similar treatments also led minors to increase their foraging behavior.

Researchers have long pondered the biological roots of divisions of labor that exist in genetically similar eusocial insect colonies, and the new study suggests that epigenetic modifications may be key to behavioral differences that delineate castes in such animals.

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Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 350

January 5, 2016

Use of the ant model organism as a proxy for what has been detailed in the context of the honeybee model organism is an interesting distraction. Here is what has been known about RNA-mediated cell type differentiation in all vertebrates and invertebrates since the mid-1990s. Nutrient-dependent/pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution: a model

Excerpt: Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled reproduction underlies what is common (Locasale, 2012) to all models of natural selection, sexual selection, and species diversity (Frady, Palmer, & Kristan, 2012). Animal models are often used to model human physical and mental disorders. The honeybee already serves as a model organism for studying human immunity, disease resistance, allergic reaction, circadian rhythms, antibiotic resistance, the development of the brain and behavior, mental health, longevity, diseases of the X chromosome, learning and memory, as well as conditioned responses to sensory stimuli (Kohl, 2012).

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