NOV 09, 2021 7:21 AM PST

It Seems a Single Molecule Can Govern Ant Behavior

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Some people change careers, and it seems that the Harpegnathos saltator ant can do the same; worker ants can switch to queen-like figures that are known as gamergates. Worker ants are not able to reproduce; usually only queens do that in an ant colony. But gamergates can mate with males to reproduce sexually, if there isn't a queen in the colony. In some species, there is no queen, only gamergate. Some other behaviors may differentiate gamergates from workers, which typically only help gather supplies for the colony and can protect it from invaders. The queen mostly functions to lay eggs. Researchers have now identified a protein that is solely responsible for the change from worker to gamergate in Harpegnathos saltator ants. The protein is called Kr-h1 (Krüppel homolog 1) and hormones that are influenced by social situations are involved in this major shift. These findings have been reported in Cell.

Image Credit: Pixabay

“Animal brains are plastic; that is, they can change their structure and function in response to the environment,” said Roberto Bonasio of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Bonasio added that this process happens in human brains too and is critical for survival. Though the cellular processes that underlie this behavior are not well understood, "we determined that, in ants, Kr-h1 curbs brains’ plasticity by preventing inappropriate gene activation.”

A Harpegnathos saltator worker opens its mandibles in an aggressive display at the photographer. / Credit: Karl Glastad (Berger Lab)

In this study, the researchers managed to isolate ant neurons and maintain them in the lab. They were able to observe how these neurons responded to various changes, like hormone levels. This work revealed that the molecules juvenile hormone and ecdysone, which can both be found at different levels in the gamergate ants, create different gene expression patterns in the brains of either workers or gamergates. Both hormones were found to exert their effects through only one protein, Kr-h1, which puts a stop to any socially inappropriate behaviors and maintains boundaries between ant 'types,' noted Berger.

The genome can encode multiple patterns of behavior, and promote one or another just by changing how a gene is regulated. “In other words, the parts of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are already written into the genome; everyone can play either role, depending on which gene switches are turned on or off,” explained Berger.

While we can't yet translate these findings to the human brain, it shows how seemingly complex behaviors can be wired into the genome, and carried out or altered with relatively simple mechanisms.

Sources: Cell Press, Cell

About the Author
BS
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
FEB 24, 2022
Chemistry & Physics
Alarming Levels of Lead Poisoning in Eagles Could Hinder Population Growth
FEB 24, 2022
Alarming Levels of Lead Poisoning in Eagles Could Hinder Population Growth
Almost half of bald and golden eagles in the U.S. have lead poisoning. In the largest comprehensive study of lead poison ...
MAR 08, 2022
Plants & Animals
Merian, Dorrien, and Colden: Three 18th Century Women Scientists Who Helped Found the Field of Taxonomy
MAR 08, 2022
Merian, Dorrien, and Colden: Three 18th Century Women Scientists Who Helped Found the Field of Taxonomy
Three 18th c. women scientists, Maria Sibylla Merian, Catharina Dorrien, and Jane Colden, helped found taxonomy but are ...
APR 13, 2022
Infographics
Pesticides 101
APR 13, 2022
Pesticides 101
Pesticides are used across multiple facets of life- from our food chain to buliding materials and gardening. But wh ...
APR 18, 2022
Microbiology
Earth's Oldest Life Forms May be Over 4 Billion Years Old!
APR 18, 2022
Earth's Oldest Life Forms May be Over 4 Billion Years Old!
We've learned a lot about life that came before us by studying fossils. The ancestry and evolution of ancient microbial ...
MAY 11, 2022
Plants & Animals
The Natural World May Help Mental Health, But Studies Lack Diversity
MAY 11, 2022
The Natural World May Help Mental Health, But Studies Lack Diversity
It seems like a no-brainer that the natural world would have a positive effect on our well being, particularly our menta ...
MAY 13, 2022
Cannabis Sciences
Is cannabis good or bad for the environment?
MAY 13, 2022
Is cannabis good or bad for the environment?
Is cannabis good or bad for the environment? There's debate as to which way the industry leans, and where it's headed.
Loading Comments...