A discovery with gigANTic implications

Discovery

McGill researchers have learned how to transform humble little ants into hulking super soldiers

by Mark Reynolds

Ehab Abouheif, McGill's Canada Research Chair in Developmental Evolution, next to a screen image of a super soldier ant and its smaller cousin taken by Alex Wild (alexanderwild.com). Photo of Ehab Abouheif by Owen Egan.

A physically frail young male from New York is given a special scientifically formulated serum, unleashing strengths previously hidden: he becomes a super soldier, possessed of abilities only conceived of in the near-mythological past.

That is the origin story of Captain America. It is also the origin story of the Pheidole morrisi super soldier.

Pheidole morrisi is an ant, and the man who transformed its larvae into six-legged mini-Hulks is  McGill’s own Ehab Abouheif, an associate professor of biology and a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Evolution, whose easy laugh carries almost no trace of a mad scientist’s evil cackle.

Abouheif’s research interest is, broadly speaking, on the interaction between genes and the environment. Ants are an excellent species to study for that, because no matter its genetic content, the fate of any given egg depends on environmental cues – nutrition, temperature, hormones – that determine its “caste.” The Long Island, NY P. morrisi which Abouheif studies typically has three: queens, minor workers and regular soldiers.

“I spotted one day – me and my team, that is – these soldiers that were pretty monstrously large. They were more than twice the size of regular soldiers. We knew that there are species that naturally produce super soldiers, but they all exclusively live in Arizona and New Mexico.”

That the Long Island ants had the ability to develop super soldiers – which are characterized by outsized heads and horror-movie mandibles – was bizarre, especially since the super soldier ants found in Arizona and New Mexico are most useful defending colonies against army ants and fire ants – neither of which are to be found in Long Island.

Abouheif decided to see if he could reproduce the phenomena. He treated larval ants with artificially high doses of a juvenile development hormone at a critical stage of their development in which soldiers were distinguished from workers. The treatment resulted in not just soldiers, but large-headed super soldiers.

“Obviously, that means there is this hidden potential to produce them – it doesn’t express them, but it has the potential,” says Abouheif.

The next step, Abouheif explains, was to try to induce super soldiers in ants residing on other branches of the Pheidole family tree that do not produce them in nature – which he and his lab were able to do, every time.

“What this means is that one of the common ancestors had the potential to produce supersoldiers, but then lost the expression – but the potential remained locked in for at 35 to 60 million years,” explains Abouheif. Human analogues include those rare occurrences of vestigial tails, or ape-like hair – with the right environmental cues, they could reappear in any one of us.

The work has exciting implications for our understanding of our genetic potential, and Atouheif’s research was widely covered in the media – everywhere from the BBC to the World Weekly News (a supermarket tabloid best known for its probing exposés of Bat Boy and the Roswell aliens).

“It captures the imagination – the idea of the Hulk or Captain America,” says Atouheif. “Everybody wants that power. It’s the idea that it isn’t just genes, that there are factors in our environment, that maybe we can control, that can unlock these potentialities. It’s very powerful.”

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6 Responses to “A discovery with gigANTic implications”
  1. Pierre Naggiar says:

    Interesting.

    Would this be the equivalent of pumping massive amount of steroids into a “human” to transform him into a “different caste/category” (shape, bulk, and strength)? From an ant perspective it probably would be.

    Atouheif lost me in his “35 to 60 million years” statement! Was he there then? Why not 100-200 million years?

    Sincerely,
    PIerre Naggiar, B.Eng 69

  2. Michael Usher MD says:

    Can I have some of this serum for myself. Perhaps you could give it to the Canadiens.
    Tread this path with care.
    Michael Usher

  3. Edward Chan B Sc '64 says:

    The Fiction-Movies came up from time to time seem to find some scientific support of their existence . . . King Kong, Giant Octopus and Gonzelas etc
    Does it also mean Dr.Atouhelf’s serum is nothing new ?

  4. Juan Rivera says:

    Interesting. This sounds like the equivalent of gigantism in ants, the ants are probably not healthy and have shorter lifespams, I can’t see any connection with evolution when I see gigantism/acromegaly, just excess of growth hormone caused by a tumor. In this case the resarcher is supplying the GH. In nature, what determines the variations in the hormonal signals that cause the different casts within the same colony of ants exposed to same enviroment? Are the eggs strategically placed in different locations? wondering …
    Juan Rivera. MD

  5. Patrick Campana says:

    The role of the environment seems to be largely underestimated in many domains. While it is mostly accepted when considering child development it is sadely ignored when looking for solutions to cancer or HIV infections for instance. I think more studies about the effects of the environment on the expression of various health related anomalies could lead to surprisingly effective means to resorb these same anomalies thus limiting the recourse to the excessively nocious treatments we know today. Investing in the research of source cause of genes expression will in my opinion bring more benefits than researching drugs to suppress these expressions.
    Patrick Campana B.Eng 81, MBA 88

  6. Paul Chénard, B.Sc.76, M.Sc.80 says:

    If the same principle applies to humans, one wonders which synthetic chemicals and how much are needed in our environment to trigger who knows what aberrant expression of our hidden «potential». Let’s just keep pumping endocrine mimics and other chemical products of industry into our environment, and see what happens…

    I’d be interested in knowing what becomes of the ant colony after these supersoldiers are introduced. Does it continue to function normally? Or do these supersoldiers disrupt the established order?