Inside the ant lab: Mutants and social genes

Inside the ant lab: Mutants and social genes


We as humans ourselves are highly social and
so much of our lives revolves around communication, and then you see these tiny critters on the
floor and you see that they also communicate. They follow each other and they seem
to co-ordinate their actions and immediately you start to feel some kind of
connection to these guys. So what I find most fascinating about ants
is how they organise their social lives, how they interact, how they petition tasks in
a colony, and how these interactions between rather simple individual insects gives rise
to these very complex emergent properties at the level of the colony. But at the same time, that same behavioural
complexity also makes social insects very challenging as study systems, especially if
you want to do functional genetics like knocking out genes or making transgenic lines. And so we’ve tried to work around that problem
by working with a rather unusual ant species — the clonal raider ant. They are on the order of 2.5mm – 3mm long, so we can keep many hundreds or thousand
ants in a fairly small tupperware box. The species doesn’t have queens;
colonies are composed of only workers and they reproduce asexually
so they don’t have to mate but they simply clone themselves. And those features make it a very good model
system if you want to develop genetic tools. In the simplest form, we just keep them in
very small petri dishes and then every ant in such a colony
has an individual colour tag. So we’re interested now in the
genetic basis of the social behaviour, and so in terms of the communication,
we’ve started to look at genes that encode what we think
are the pheromone receptors that the ants use to smell essentially, and those are genes that are mostly
expressed in the antennae of the ants. So we have a set up in the lab now where we can destroy the function of one gene that’s crucial for the functioning of a
whole group of odorant receptor genes. And it turns out when you
take out that gene, this whole social communication
system breaks down. It just walks around as if
it were looking for the colony but it has no way of detecting the colony because it
can’t perceive the chemical cues anymore. Another part of our functional genetic toolkit
is trying to make what’s called transgenic ants, where we take a genetic construct
and try to insert it into the genome of the ants. So we keep the ants in these small dishes. We have inserted genes to cause these
ants to express fluorescent proteins. So if you look very closely at this colony, among the white pupae
that the ants are sitting on top of, you should see one that is visibly pink. These ants carry a different fluorescent protein
in the sensory neurons of their antennae. So, in principle, we can look at the level
of fluorescence in these neurons and it should go up and down with activity in the cells. We started this project about six and a half,
seven years ago with this long-term goal of being able to do behavioural genetics, and
eventually behavioural neuroscience, at a level that at least approaches
more conventional model systems. And that opens up a lot of questions that I think until very recently were
really completely inaccessible to people working on social insects.

27 thoughts on “Inside the ant lab: Mutants and social genes”

  1. You know you call this science but it is a monstrous abuse of earth. Let me experiment on you this way. This is horrid and cruel and Rockefeller name attached to it says a lot. I want workers not thinkers. May you burn in hell.

  2. Any one has a good recommendation on how to deal with little red ants? They invaded my home and little red traps I bought do not seem to bother them. Thanks in advance!

  3. So cruel… I know they are ants, but that doesn't mean they aren't living beings like us. I would never want experiments like this to be performed on us humans :'(

  4. How does that guy research with his curl bangs on his face !! 😀 .. I had to spoil my curls in tight buns to be the lab!
    😄A flattering 20blinks/sec rate! 03:02!

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