A species of ants in India has an exceptional solution when the queen of the colony suddenly dies or disappears: worker ants that turn into queens.
Previous research has already found that this ant’s brain can change size depending on its position in the colony. If the queen is missing, a sort of tournament is created in which the ants fight for the vacancy, after which the transition entry is set for the winner. The size of the brain changes and the reproductive system forms, so that the former worker ant can now take care of the next generation.
Researchers have now discovered which hormones and genes play a role. One hormone directs the formation of worker ants and another directs the formation of the queen. They were able to test this by giving these hormones to 10-day-old ants. It turned out that they could indeed control which of the two functions the ant had.
Both hormones appear to influence the same mechanism that subsequently determines which genes turn on and off in the ant. What remains a mystery: how is it possible that environmental factors could trigger a switch between the two functions? What exactly produces more of one hormone than another?
But also: could we find a similar mechanism in other animal species?
Read more: A single transcription factor turns ants into queens. Image credit: Karl Glasstad – Berger Laboratory.
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