Carpenter Ant Colonies in Florida Exhibit Pronounced Differences in Social Behavior

-Carpenter Ant Colonies in Florida Exhibit Pronounced Differences in Social Behavior

Not all, but little of you must have heard of the word Epigenetics, which means the study of stable, or persistent, changes in gene expression that occur without changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetic regulation has been observed to affect a variety of distinct traits in animals, including body size, aging, and behavior. In a new study published today in Science, a multi-institution team anchored at University of Pennsylvania found that carpenter ant colonies in Florida exhibit pronounced differences in social behavior throughout their lives. The study shows that social behavior of these ants can be reprogrammed. The study could have implications for the study of human behavior and disease, indicating that an individual's epigenetic, not genetic, makeup determines behavior in ant colonies.

Each colony of ants comprises thousands of individual sisters, so these creatures qualify the criteria and provide ideal models to study social behavior. The queen and all female ants are workers with nearly identical genetic makeup much similar to human twins, but these sisters possess stereotypically distinct physical traits and behaviors based on caste. Shelley Berger, PhD, from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with teams led by Juergen Liebig from Arizona State University and Danny Reinberg from New York University, found that caste-specific foraging behavior in ants can be directly altered. The team demonstrated that foraging behavior could be reprogrammed using compounds that inhibit the addition or removal of these acetyl groups on histones.

Daniel F. Simola, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Penn Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, said “The results suggest that behavioral malleability in ants, and likely other animals, may be regulated in an epigenetic manner via histone modification”. The latest study shows how caste behaviors are regulated by epigenetic changes in histone acetylation. The findings suggest that there is an ‘epigenetic window of vulnerability’ in young ant brains, which confers increased susceptibility to environmental manipulations, such as with histone-modifying inhibitors.

In a statement provided to EurekAlert, ants provide ideal models to study social behavior, because each colony is comprised of thousands of individual sisters -- famously, the queen and all workers are female -- with nearly identical genetic makeup, much like human twins. However, these sisters possess stereotypically distinct physical traits and behaviors based on caste. In a previous study, the authors created the first genome-wide epigenetic maps in ants. This revealed that epigenetic regulation is key to distinguishing majors as the "brawny" soldiers of carpenter ant colonies, compared to minors, their smaller, "brainier" sisters. Major ants have large heads and powerful mandibles that help to defeat enemies and process and transport large food items.

In other news Phys reported, in Florida carpenter ant colonies, distinct worker castes called minors and majors exhibit pronounced differences in social behavior throughout their lives. In a new study published today in Science, a multi-institution team anchored at University of Pennsylvania found that these caste-specific behaviors are not set in stone. Rather, this pioneering study shows that social behavior can be reprogrammed, indicating that an individual's epigenetic, not genetic, makeup determines behavior in ant colonies.

Camponotus floridanus — better known as Florida carpenter ants — have a number of castes. The two most common are the soldier caste (a massive brawny ant with a big head and a fearsome set of mandibles) and the worker ant (a small, brainy ant). The worker caste is the kind of ant that would star in an animated movie. It’s also the kind of ant that could ruin your picnic because it forages for food and, when it finds a bounty, recruits all the other worker ants to bring the food home, Gizmodo reported.

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