Let’s say you are an Indian jumping ant, but ambitious. Throughout your life you have used your enormous mandibles and surprisingly high leap to thrive as a hunter and gatherer for your colony. You are unmatched in one-on-one combat with potential invaders, your reddish-brown exoskeleton glistening in the sun as you slay enemies. Better yet, while most ant colonies maintain very strict differences between queens (who rule and reproduce) and worker bees (who kill prey and feed), you are a Saltator Harpegnathos. The difference between a queen and a worker is much lighter, so if a queen dies or is removed, you can participate in a dueling tournament with other workers until a handful of winners become called breeding individuals. gamergates.
Take that off and congratulations, your ambition to become a colony leader has been fulfilled! The only question, for scientists, was exactly How? ‘Or’ What your body may have transformed from being a “food provider” to a “baby maker” simply because of social interaction. Ants, after all, have very different body types depending on their functions in the colony. How can adults just make such a drastic change just through socialization?
A new study published in the scientific journal Cell has the answer. And it all comes down to one molecule, a protein known as Kr-h1 (Krüppel homolog 1). Changing that completely changes the biology of the ant.
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This protein turns out to be multitasking, regulating various genes in both gamergates and workers to ensure that they only fulfill their “socially appropriate” roles. By turning certain genes on or off, Kr-h1 maintains the ant caste system by dictating that ants will behave in ways appropriate to their class (such as foraging for food for worker bees and ruling for breeding ants).
“We did not foresee that the same protein could silence different genes in the brains of different castes and, therefore, suppress worker behavior in gamergates and gamergate behavior in workers,” said Roberto Bonasio. from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. a press release from Cell on the study. “We thought these jobs would be attributed to two or more different factors, each of which is only present in one or the other brain.”
This makes sense because, at the very least, gamergates undergo a major shift in their job responsibilities once they stop being workers.
“Gamergates abandon worker tasks such as foraging, lay eggs and exhibit dominant behaviors towards workers,” the scientists say in the study. “This behavioral transition is accompanied by a 5-fold extension of lifespan, reconfiguration of gene expression and brain cell composition, and neurohormonal changes.”
Because scientists already know that animals’ brains are plastic (i.e. able to adapt to their environment), this insight into the inner life of Indian jumping ants could one day shed light on the human brain.
“It is tempting to speculate that related proteins might have comparable functions in more complex brains, including our own,” Bonasio added in the statement. “The discovery of these proteins could one day allow us to restore plasticity to brains that have lost it, for example aging brains.”