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Science

Ant Behavior Significantly Altered By Injecting a Single Enzyme (arstechnica.com) 45

New submitter Fiona_OHanlon writes: According to an article at Ars Technica, researchers injected enzymes into ant larvae brains, causing genetically identical ants from different castes to behave as if they were from the opposite caste. From the story: "Carpenter ants live in a caste system, where some members of the colony grow into large, strong worker guards known as majors and others grow into small, inquisitive food scouts known as minors. [The researchers] focused specifically on enzymes that affect 160 genes whose activity diverged the most between minors and majors. Those genes included ones associated with learning, memory, and the way neurons communicate with each other in the brain. ... After several experiments with feeding the substance to their insect subjects, the researchers figured out how to inject the enzymes into the brains of major workers shortly after hatching (abstract). The treatment made the ants take on new social roles immediately. ... The modification ultimately depended on changing the behavior of one particular gene, Rpd3, which set off a cascade effect that changed the behavior of other genes too."
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Ant Behavior Significantly Altered By Injecting a Single Enzyme

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  • that I would just love to test this stuff upon.

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Sunday January 03, 2016 @09:37AM (#51230033) Journal
    Altering the base behavior of a hive insect with an injection of a specific enzyme is fascinating, until you realize where the science leads you.

    We have been medicating human behavior deemed antisocial for generations now...

    • And Wall Street alone is enough proof that it doesn't work. Your point being?

      • by mjm1231 ( 751545 )

        Or maybe it says something about the process for deciding which behaviors are deemed antisocial.

    • Re:Ants, you say (Score:4, Informative)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday January 03, 2016 @11:25AM (#51230285) Journal
      The major trick, in humans, is that (so far as we know) there aren't a bunch of conveniently defined castes to work with. With these ants there ended up being a single fairly neat switch that the researchers could apply to get an entire cascade of behavioral changes because that entire cascade of changes is already one that the ants have evolved to employ. We know of similar things in humans(the most dramatic probably being the developmental trajectory into either male or female development from an originally very similar state); but we don't seem to have a 'service-sector worker', or 'pre-med' caste, despite the frantic efforts of parents to the contrary.

      This isn't to say that applications in humans would be impossible; but there is a reason why we've been medicating for generations(arguably, at least since we developed brewing, possibly earlier in populations whose hunter-gathering regions had decent psychoactives naturally available): because we rarely even know what we want, except in the vaguest terms, much less how to get there.
      • by WoOS ( 28173 )

        With these ants there ended up being a single fairly neat switch that the researchers could apply to get an entire cascade of behavioral changes because that entire cascade of changes is already one that the ants have evolved to employ.

        Yes and I do not find it too surprising that the pre-defined behaviour in ants can be changed easily. One never knows what evolution comes up with but when it needs two distinct behaviours it is much safer to have one "switch" than several ones which could erroneously activate in wrong combinations. Probably the "complicated switching between castes"-ants have died out long ago from too many offsprings trying to go left and right at the same time. ;-)

      • The major trick, in humans, is that (so far as we know) there aren't a bunch of conveniently defined castes to work with.

        It's actually much more complicated than that. We are still struggling on figuring out which human behaviors are defined genetically at all versus defined via environmental learning (the old nature vs. nurture question). Before you can start modifying human behavior through chemistry, you first need to identify which behaviors can actually be altered that way at all. And we're a long way from doing that.

  • How is it that there hasn't yet been a single "I for one welcome our new insect overlords" post? Is this not Slashdot?

    • How is it that there hasn't yet been a single "I for one welcome our new insect overlords" post? Is this not Slashdot?

      Or a "Why is this even on Sladshdot?" comment.

      Although a Beowulf cluster of enzyme altered ants would be awesome.

      • Real ants are passé.
        Give us more about artificial life "ants", with strange additional capabilities that can be used to search for good solutions to difficult real-life tasks like the wonderfully evocative "Flying Sidekick Travelling Salesman Problem".
        Put them in a Shatner-Norris cluster, pit them against enzyme-enhanced ants in a Beowulf cluster, and live stream it.
        Please save us from the abyss that is off-ratings season.

    • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Sunday January 03, 2016 @11:28AM (#51230301)

      "How is it that there hasn't yet been a single "I for one welcome our new insect overlords" post? Is this not Slashdot?"

      That's because the enzyme didn't turn the nest into a Beowulf cluster of ants.

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      No kidding. Come on /.ers, you must welcome me as your insect/ant overlord. :P

  • by nospam007 ( 722110 ) * on Sunday January 03, 2016 @01:20PM (#51230737)

    Simple smell can do it as well.

    Scouts have the least nest-smell so if foragers (which have a bit more nest-smell), don't smell ants like that for some time, they are going to scout themselves.
    Just as the cleaners around the nest entrance are going foraging themselves if they don't smell as many foragers coming back or the 1/3 'reserve' inside the nest if they don't smell as many cleaners coming in are going to go out and doing some cleaning themselves.

    It's self-organizing, they found that out years ago when methods became available to mark single ants to see what each of them does.

  • This is how my boss is going to force me to become an Oracle DBA.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 03, 2016 @02:25PM (#51231141)

    Rpd3 is a histone deacetylase, for those who want intelligent discussion, rather than paranoid rambling.

    For those who aren't up to speed on HDACs, eukariotic (which includes all multicellular organisms) genomes are folded up in the nucleus, wrapped in coils around protein complexes called "histones". As DNA has phosphate groups (the "acid" part in "deoxyribonucleic acid"), in order to wrap up the DNA compactly, these proteins need to neutralize the negative charges on the phosphate groups, which they do with positively charged lysine sidechains. But the cell can regulate how efficiently that wrapping goes by adding/removing an acetyl group to the lysines with histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs). Eukaryotes use this wrapping/unwrapping to help control gene expression: genes need to be unwrapped in order to be expressed. Normally, gene activation involves things like HDAC recruitment to remove histones from the gene in order to help unwrap the DNA and start expression.

    So what's happening here is that they inject a whole bunch of this histone deacetylase into the ants' brains, which then presumably gets into the nucleus (which is actually the most interesting part, from my perspective), and rips off the acetyl groups from the histones surrounding certain genes, leading to their expression. Apparently, the Rpd3 HDAC has a location of action which specifically rips off the acetyl groups from around those genes which are involved in changing the ants' brain into a forager. (It's probably not all that precise, but it's just that Rpd3 has an activity profile which is biased toward those genes - it hits a bunch of stuff, but that's the major locations which show the biggest effect.) It could very well be that Rpd3 is one of the "master regulator switches" in ants which gets turned on in development for making foragers.

    From a certain perspective, it's not all that surprising. We know that both types of ants have basically the same DNA and the same genes. The only difference between worker and guard is the gene expression profile, and sequestering unused genes in condensed chromatin (basically tightly-wrapped histones) is the best way we know about for long-term gene inactivation, short of actual DNA editing. So it makes sense that the developmental process which makes one ant a forager and one a guard involves wrapping one section or the other up in histones. Inject this HDAC into the brain, and you unwrap those sections for forager behavior. It's basically the equivalent of giving massive amounts of testosterone/estrogen to humans to perform a sex change - certain developmental features are already locked in, but injecting the hormone/HDAC changed the gene expression pattern and subsequent behavior of the individual.

  • ... it does wonders for altering one's behavior.

  • All this just for a live-action version of Antz. Woody Allen could not be reached for a comment.

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