We've Just Entered the World of Mutant Ants

Scientists for the first time alter their behavior by manipulating genes
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 11, 2017 11:17 AM CDT
We've Just Entered the World of Mutant Ants
This queen Nylanderia pubens (ant) specimen in Starkville, Miss., was not part of the study.   (AP Photo/Mississippi State Entomological Museum, Joe MacGown)

Scientists have successfully altered a major behavior of two species of lab ants by deleting a single gene. As the Washington Post reports, the journal Cell has just published two papers chronicling the journeys of the first so-called mutant ants. One team reports on how one mutation removed a key aspect of an ant's odor receptors, rendering them incapable of socializing; the other team reports on how another mutation produced "aberrant social behavior and defective neural development." It's being hailed as a success largely due to the complexity of the endeavor; ants are some of the most social insects on the planet, with complex life cycles and genomes. Why deprive ants of their ability to socialize? Scientists say the goal was to determine whether ant behavior could be altered genetically.

Given a single gene (called orco) out of hundreds of olfactory genes has its hand in pretty much the full olfactory system, that seemed the logical one to target—for both research groups. Deleting orco resulted in a loss of roughly 90% of their "olfaction," and the ants changed in many ways, including laying very few eggs, being poor mothers, avoiding antennae duels, wandering aimlessly, and suffering a change in brain structure, per a Science Daily news release. Researchers next want to investigate division of labor and an unusual feat of longevity involving queen pheromones. Most workers live for seven months, but those that become "pseudo-queens" can hit four years, which is like humans reaching 550 years instead of dying by 85. (Read another study about ants.)

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