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Ant Epigenetics

November 2, 2010

In some ant species, queens and workers are genetically identical. A new study reveals how they develop different behaviors and appearance.


Same genes, different ants…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In many ant colonies, the queen is genetically identical to the workers, despite big differences in her size and behavior. She can also live up to ten times longer. Biochemist Danny Reinberg of the New York University School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute says the differences are due to non-genetic factors that influence how genes are expressed, called epigenetics. In the jumping ant, if the queen is removed from the colony, a worker soon takes over the role of laying all of the eggs. This “pseudoqueen” also gets a boost in longevity.

DANNY REINBERG (New York University School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute):
All of that, whatever is happening, is epigenetic.

He and his colleagues found that levels of an enzyme called telomerase were higher in pseudoqueens than in workers, which probably helps extend their lives. Understanding ant epigenetics could shed light on aging processes in other species as well. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.