On Thursday, two independent research teams described their work deleting ant genes. Two papers chronicling the first mutant ants appeared in the journal Cell, along with a third study that altered ant behavior using an insect brain hormone.
Claude Desplan, a New York University biologist and an author of one of the studies, said that, as far as he could tell, these ants are “the first mutant in any social insect.”
Ants have complex social roles, even though members of a colony are genetically very similar. Females may be egg-laying queens or sterile workers, colony cleaners or fierce soldiers. Males, who are little more than sperm-delivery systems with wings, appear only seasonally. To ensure the mutant genes carry on, “you need to go through the queen,” Desplan said. “It is not so easy to make queens.”
“There's a lot of interesting biologic questions that you can study with ants that you can’t study with fruit flies or even mice,” said Rockefeller University biologist Daniel Kronauer, an author of the other mutant-ant study. If you throw a thousand fruit flies in a bucket of dirt, maybe they'll fight or copulate, he said. But that's about it. Do the same with ants and they'll set to work digging, caring for broods and foraging.