Unlocking Your Ant’s Inner Supersoldier

Monday, January 9th, 2012

In 2006, McGill biologist Ehab Abouheif was minding his business in Long Island (his business, of course, being poking around in the dirt next to a highway, looking for ants) when he discovered eight Pheidole ants of the “supersoldier” variety. Supersoldier ants are much larger than their civilian kin, and have really big heads and massive mandibles. But here’s the weird part: Supersoldiers don’t live in Long Island. Ever.

Now, after five years of research, Abouheif and his team have figured out this mystery: It turns out that any old Pheidole ant contains the dormant genetic potential to develop into a supersoldier—-and, even more exciting, the researchers can induce a regular ant into unleashing its inner supersoldier by applying juvenile hormone to the ant larvae at critical stages in their development. The team, led by PhD student Rajee Rajakumar (and including collaborators at the University of Arizona) published a paper in the latest edition of Science. The potentially revolutionary findings show that dormant genetic potential can be locked in place for a very long time.

“The kind of environmental stressors that evoke this dormant potential are there all the time – so when the need arises natural selection can take hold of the potential and actualize it,” says Abouheif, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Development Biology. “So what we’re showing is that environmental stress is important for evolution because it can facilitate the development of novel phenotypes. Anytime you have a mismatch between the normal environment of the organism and its genetic potential you can release them – and these things can be locked in place for 30-65 million years.”

The research was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Development Biology, the National Sciences Foundation, Konrad Lorenz Institute Fellowship.

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