Ants’ Behavior Can Be Reprogrammed Through Epigenetics

"ant on a leaf"

Ants have one of the most complex colony structures from the world of insects.

After treating members of a Florida carpenter ant colony, Camponotus floridanus, with several types of drugs, scientists found that ants’ behavior can be reprogrammed through epigenetics. Although this finding revolves around the alteration of a binary-based social behavior consisting of major and minor members, it nonetheless proves the implication of epigenetics in the aforementioned sector.

Epigenetics consist of changes in the genetic expression without affecting the DNA base of the specimen. This is possible through the alteration of acetyl groups when attached to histone protein complexes. These proteins get enveloped by DNA strains inside the nucleus of a cell, and can dictate how tight the DNA can get, in order to allow the gain or the removal of proteins.

Carpenter ants have a caste system inside their colonies, with larger sized individuals, majors, having the role of protecting the queen and the workers while smaller sized ants, minors, are tasked with foraging and providing food sources for the larvae. Once the drugs are administered while the ants are still in their early stages of life, majors can be programmed to act as minors and vice versa.

Because epigenetics do not influence the appearance of the specimen, even though they now act as workers, majors still retain their larger size. What is even more interesting is the fact that major ants can only be altered within the first few days after they hatch, while minors can be reprogrammed in the later stages of their life.

Once this alteration occurs, ants’ behavior remains the same throughout their life. Further inquiries and tests have to be conducted on the matter in order to see why in some cases, for instance, the queen ant, can gain an increased lifespan through epigenetics. Their influence on a more complex social behavior also has to be documented upon in a more extensive manner.

Ants are the perfect specimen to work with because of their increased number inside of a colony, as well as their limited size, allowing for several colonies to be housed inside a laboratory. By further subjecting the ant specimens to several drugs and epigenetics treatments, scientists may be able to one day dictate specific tasks for carpenter ants to carry out.

By altering ants in this large extent, they could eventually be ordered to build certain structures. This discovery can also help scientists that are currently developing swarm Artificial Intelligence. Because this type of AI is based on the colony behavior of ants and bees, by knowing how exactly their organism gets pre-installed orders from their genetic make-up, software engineers can apply these findings into their AI program construction.

Because ants’ behavior can be reprogrammed through epigenetics, other colony type insects like bees could also be influenced in the same way. This is extremely beneficial because through epigenetics, scientists may be able to remove the possibility of a colony to suffer from the colony-collapse disorder that plagues honeybees around the globe. If this disease will not be stopped in the near future, we may very well reach a point where bees will go extinct.