Two ants that begin life with the same genetic information can develop dramatically different body sizes, or a lifespan of 15 times their cohorts, depending on their place in ant society. What does ant caste teach us about humans?
A group of scientists focused on "epigenetics" - the study of how environment shapes the way genes behave - recently sequenced the genomes of two different ant species, carpenter ants and jumping ants. They found that epigenetic factors caused these ants to develop biological caste systems, with some worker ants growing much larger than others and queens living many times longer than workers. These epigenetic influences also affected ant behavior too, causing "major workers" among the carpenter ants to become warriors who guard the nest, while "minor workers" go out foraging for food. (In the picture below, you can see the difference in size between major and minor workers - who are born with essentially the same genomes.)
Among the jumping ants, the researchers found something even more intriguing. When the queen of the colony dies, workers compete to become the next queen. The winning ant's biology changes dramatically, with a longevity-linked enzyme called telomerase skyrocketing in her system, causing her to live much longer than she would have as a worker.
Biochemist Danny Reinberg, who worked on the study, said:
"In studying the genomes of these two ants, we were fascinated by the different behaviors and different roles that the worker ants develop. Since every ant in the colony starts with the same genetic information, the different neuronal connections that specify the behavior appropriate for each social rank, must be controlled by epigenetic mechanisms. The findings could potentially help us learn more about the effect of epigenetics on brain function in humans."
The question is whether epigenetic factors like these could change human lifespans or morphologies too. Could we induce longevity the way these queen ants do? Or could we do something to our bodies to turn some humans into superpowered giants like the major workers of the carpenter ant species?
Photos by Jurgen Liebig