Scientists are modifying ants and they’re learning what makes them social

If there’s any species on Earth that can teach us about teamwork, it’s ants.

Out of the entire animal kingdom, ants have long held a strong case for being the most social. But while many observations have been made about them, much is left to discover in the field of genetic modification.

A team of researchers led by Daniel Kronauer, evolutionary biologist at The Rockefeller University in New York, found the key – a species called clonal raider ants (Ooceraea biroi). These ants don’t require a queen to lay eggs, and instead simply ‘clone’ themselves.

While this opened the door for Kronauer’s team, they still labored through intensive testing, going through “10,000 tries to develop the right touch to not damage the eggs while taping them to slides, injecting them with genetic material, and raising them to hatching. Then it took months to learn how to put the newly hatched young back into an ant colony and get the ants there to take care of them. ”

Kronauer’s graduate student Waring Trible disrupted a gene called orco, known to produce protein needed for “specialized odor-sensing nerve cells in an ant’s antennae.”

The key finding: Young adult ants tended to “spend their first month motionless with their nest-mates,” and the young transgenic ants were restless. These behavioral changes were coupled with noticeable differences in terms of reproduction and mortality:

“Clonal raider ants typically lay six eggs every 2 weeks, whereas the transgenics laid only about one egg in that time period. And the transgenics tended to die within 2 to 3 months, instead of the usual 6 to 8 months.”

Ants have long been some of the most fascinating creatures for scientists, so this study of brain development in them and other social animals is really exciting considering the kind of challenges humanity faces. It’s amazing what kind of research is going into finding solutions to the world’s problems, and we’re hoping for more good news in the coming years.

Via Science

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