PHILADELPHIA The recently published genome sequences of seven well-studied ant species are opening up new vistas for biology and medicine. A detailed look at molecular mechanisms that underlie the complex behavioral differences in two worker castes in the Florida carpenter ant, Camponotus floridanus, has revealed a link to epigenetics. This is the study of how the expression or suppression of particular genes by chemical modifications affects an organism's physical characteristics, development, and behavior. Epigenetic processes not only play a significant role in many diseases, but are also involved in longevity and aging.
Interdisciplinary research teams led by Shelley Berger, PhD, from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with teams led by Danny Reinberg from New York University and Juergen Liebig from Arizona State University, describe their work in Genome Research. The group found that epigenetic regulation is key to distinguishing one caste, the "majors", as brawny Amazons of the carpenter ant colony, compared to the "minors", their smaller, brainier sisters. These two castes have the same genes, but strikingly distinct behaviors and shape.
Ants, as well as termites and some bees and wasps, are eusocial species that organize themselves into rigid caste-based societies, or colonies, in which only one queen and a small contingent of male ants are usually fertile and reproduce. The rest of a colony is composed of functionally sterile females that are divided into worker castes that perform specialized roles such as foragers, soldiers, and caretakers. In Camponotus floridanus, there are two worker castes that are physically and behaviorally different, yet genetically very similar.
Lead author Daniel F. Simola, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Penn Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, explains that "the major is also called a soldier, and it has a much larger h
|Contact: Karen Kreeger|
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine