GM Ants Show How Insect Societies Work

Julie Reindl
March 10th 2017

Ants, they can be as annoying as impressive. Not just because they can carry 50 times their own body weight, but also for their cooperative work in the colony that rightly grants their little city the name "super organism". A few of those ants have now been genetically modified for a research, and the results are astonishing. Ants social behavior is strongly dependent on their sense of smell, who would have thought that?

The interest in the development of the social actions of an organism, their way of reproducing by having a few or one part of the whole group do all the reproduction in order to sustain the big whole, ranges from insects as ants and bees to the humans, and already interested biologists like Charles Darwin. Group Insects genes, give huge insight on how their social behavior functions. Getting to those genes or better said, disrupting their genes is a very difficult task and makes gene modification almost impossible. Due to ants sensitive eggs and the life cycle of one single insect, it is hard to genetically modify a decent amount of offsprings.

One ant species, called the raider ant, has a deficiency of queens, usually responsible for reproduction. In the case of the raider ant, every single individual breeds eggs. Interestingly those eggs develop as clones, which allow the scientists to modify a whole stem with the help of CRISPR. After 10.000 tries in two years and interesting findings about how to breed functioning eggs and their reintroduction into the tribe, the research team interrupted the protein producing a gene responsible for an ant working odor recognition.

With their 350 odor receptors, ants are highly attuned to use them as their communication tool. In comparison, a fruit fly has 46 odor receptors and a human approximately 400. As this amount of receptors is truly high for an insect, scientists assumed it had to do with their behavior. After their birth, the transgenic ants immediately started to move around, which an uncommon behavior, as an ant usually  spend its first month motionless in its nest. “To see these baby ants running around is just utterly bizarre” the scientist say. Not just the fact that those newly created ants would not loose time to discover their surroundings, they also could not smell the footpaths of their colleges. Both facts are crucial for a tribe survival and keeps their co-working intact.

The modifications didn’t just have consequences on their odor reception, but also on their way of laying eggs and in their brains development. The gene modification literally killed the formation of brain clusters which also happened to gene modified mice. These results help the research of the intricate behavior of social species, as we humans are as well. If we don’t want to disrupt our odor perception we should now think about how far gene modification should transform our lifes and if so, in which ways.

Source: Sciencemag

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