Ants turned into 'supersoldiers'
By VICTORIA GILL - BBC NATURE NEWS
Added: Fri, 13 Jan 2012 22:49:01 UTC
Thanks to Alan4discussion for the link
Pheidole ant supersoldiers (right) use their unusually large heads to defend their nests
Ants can be programmed to become "supersoldiers", according to an international team of researchers.
All ant colonies are made up of insects of different "castes", including soldiers and workers. This team worked out how to "trick" developing ant larvae to turn into a rare and unusual supersoldier caste.
The breakthrough, the researchers say, reveals that hidden traits could be unlocked in many species.
Dr Ehab Abouheif from McGill University in Montreal led the team, which found that treating ant larvae with a hormone at a very specific time during their development turned those ants into the giant supersoldiers.
The scientists managed to achieve this in two ant species that do not "naturally" have the supersoldier caste as part of their colony.
Dr Abouheif and his team studied Pheidole ants - a large group of more than 1,000 related species. Of those, there are just eight that have a so-called supersoldiers, which help protect the colony by blocking the entrance from invaders using their oversized heads.
The idea of attempting to "programme" developing ants to become these giant soldiers was triggered when Dr Abouheif noticed that another common Pheidole ant species, which does not have any supersoldiers in its colony, had a few strangely big-headed colony members.
"We were collecting [the ants] on Long Island, New York, and we noticed some monstrous-looking soldiers," Dr Abouheif said.
The apparently mutant ants looked just like the rare supersoldier caste of related species, so the scientists set out to find out what had caused them to take that form."
Users of the site may also be interested in this BBC article: Scientists discover soldier bees
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