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Epigenetic Drugs Can Alter Social Behaviors Of Carpenter Ants, Researchers Say

Jan 03, 2016 07:30 PM EST
Carpenter Ants
Florida carpenter ants, minor caste (left) and major caste (right), have specific social roles. However, researchers recently discovered the use of epigenetic drugs can alter these predisposed behaviors.
(Photo : Shelley Berger)

University of Pennsylvania researchers were able to manipulate the behaviors of Florida carpenter ants using epigenetic drugs. Although colonies of these ants have designated roles, the team of researchers managed to turn foraging ants into scouts. This suggests social behavior is not necessarily based on an individual's genetics.

Florida carpenter ant colonies have specific worker castes in which some of the colony members grow into large, strong worker guards known as majors and others grow into small, inquisitive food scouts known as minors. However, the two castes share the exact same genetics, but look and behave in dramatically different ways. This means the differences must be epigenetic, or triggered by environmental factors that take hold after the ants are born, according to a news release.

In the latest study, researchers found just one dose of a specific enzyme, injected into a recently-hatched major's brain, can mess with the ant's epigenetics for months. Major ants have large heads and powerful mandibles that help to defeat enemies and transport large food items, while minors are much smaller and mainly responsible for searching for food and culling teams to help with the harvest.

"[Ants are] a fantastic model for studying principles of epigenetic modulation of behavior and even longevity, because queens have a much longer lifespan compared to the major and minor workers," Shelley Berger, study leader and senior author, explained in the university's release.

When injecting the enzymes into a major's brain, the balance of epigenetic chemicals called acetyl groups were altered, thus changing an individual's behavior immediately. For instance, the recently-hatched major workers looked big and powerful like their unmodified major sisters, but they acted like minors, exploring and foraging for food.

"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," Berger added. "This is a topic of increasing research interest in humans, owing to the growing prevalence of behavioral disorders and diseases and the appreciation that diet may influence behavior."

Their study was recently published in the journal Science

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