Gene-altered ants show how animal societies work

Even slight changes in DNA can have a large impact on social behavior.

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How much is societal behavior dictated by genetics? Scientists at Rockefeller University might just find out through ant colonies. They've modified the genes of clonal raider ants (not shown above) to see how the changes affect social behavior, both individually and on a grander scale. Knocking out genes for odorant receptors leads to "lone wolf" ants who wander by themselves for days, for example. The team keeps track of these exceptions by painting the ants in such a way that computers can track them all day, spotting even slight deviations from the norm.

The team also uses radioactively-labeled neurochemicals to see where signaling molecules take hold. They've noticed that differing levels of a key hormone determine the strength of an ant's nurturing instinct, and that ants who don't follow the colony's overall reproductive cycle are summarily executed by "police" ants.

The genetic tweaking clearly sheds some light on how animal societies work on a basic level, but it should also be useful for studying many complex biological systems. An ant colony is really just a collective organism, when you think about it. The researchers believe they could get insights into human conditions with social elements, such as autism and depression, and understand why cancer cells ignore the usual cues to stop growth. In other words, these tiny creatures might lead to some serious breakthroughs.