A new study that will appear in this week’s issue of Science, reveals that epigenetic drugs can change the carpenter ants’ behavior.
The Florida carpenter ants can be divided into two categories: the majors and the minors. The majors usually guard the colony, while the minors search for provisions. According to some researchers, these roles can be changed easily.
The carpenter ants are also known as sugar ants are large ants that live in many parts of the world. They usually build their nests inside dead or damp wood. They later create galleries that are chewed with the help of their mandibles. Unlike termites, they do not eat the wood. They often infest buildings made out of wood and can cause major damage.
The carpenter ants were most likely chosen for the experiment because they are ideal for social behavior studies. Each colony of carpenter ants has a queen and thousands of workers. Their genetic material is nearly identical for every ant and the physical characteristics are influenced by the caste. The minor ants are small and are capable of foraging, while the major ants are a lot bigger, have powerful jaws and big heads which they use when coming in contact with their enemies.
For the research, the ants were treated with chemical compounds, in order to see if the majors could start acting like the minors. The drug manipulated their epigenetic material, but didn’t alter their DNA. In fact, the epigenetic material determines which genes are turned on and which are turned off. The size of the majors, which are larger than minors wasn’t changed by the experiment. These behavioral changes caused by injecting their brains with the drug will be permanent, according to Shelley Berger, one of the lead authors of the study.
The researchers discovered that there are some substances that have the power to modify the histones, which determine how flexible will the DNA be. They also found out that the behavior of the majors could only be changed in the first days of their life. This was a surprising discovery, according to Danny Reinberg, one of the authors of the research. Doctor Reinberg said that the ways in which the epigenetics affect the behavior of the ants will be further studied. The longevity of the ants and why the queen lives longer than the workers are also subjects that interest the researchers.
As the study revealed that epigenetic drugs can change the carpenter ants’ behavior, the behavioral malleability of the ants could lead to more important discoveries in the future.
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