A new study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania shows that epigenetics can reprogram social behavior.
- Carpenter ants are either major guards or minor food foragers
- An enzyme can make a major ant behave like a minor one
- Researchers believe the findings can apply even to mammals
Although genetics should play a big part in an animal’s social behavior, so does the environment in which the animal lives and more importantly, thanks to new research we now know that drugs can also influence social behavior.
Ants are social insects that live in a system in which every ant has a job. Carpenter ants are split into groups: majors and minors. The majors are the large, strong working ants, whereas the minors are the small food scouts.
What was intriguing to scientists was how ants coming from the same castes and having the same parents can look and behave so differently. They assumed that the difference must be epigenetic or somehow influenced by the environment.
Social insects usually create their castes with food. For example a queen bee is made through feeding a larva with royal jelly. Assuming a similar thing happens with carpenter ants, scientists tried to isolate a substance which they used in feeding the ants to see whether it could cause them to transform and differentiate into major or minor.
More specifically they wanted to see whether a working major ant would become a minor ant and start behaving like one, abandoning her post as a guard and becoming a forager. The enzyme they used affects about 160 genes associated with memory, learning and how neurons communicate.
After finally finding a way to inject the right enzyme into a newly-hatched ant’s brain, major workers immediately changed behavior and became minors. Although they were still big they acted like the small ants, looking for food.
So far, the scientists observed the modified ants’ behavior for not more than 50 days. Since a carpenter ant can have a lifespan of up to 7 years, it is not clear yet if their behavior is changed permanently or if they could eventually go back to their original purpose.
Thanks to the findings of this study we now know that besides genes and environment, enzymes or drugs can also alter animal social behavior. Although the study was only performed on ants, researchers believe the same can be applied to other species, even to mammals.
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