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Seeking social genes

February 1, 2011

In order understand the evolution of complex societies, researchers are sequencing the genomes of social insects. The most recent data, published in the Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, come from several species of ants, including the red harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus.

A team, lead by Arizona State University organismal and systems biology professor Juergen Gadau, sequenced one of the genomes and set out to decipher which genes might be responsible for defining which ants work and which ants reproduce in a red harvester ant colony.

Division of labor and reproduction are two crucial characteristics scientists think are important to the evolution of social structure. “Having multiple independently evolved social genomes helps us to better understand which genes are involved in crucial social traits, because those should be highly conserved,” Gadau said.

In addition to specialization of roles within a colony, researchers argue that development of methods to communicate information is another key aspect of eusociality, the extreme form of social behavior exhibited by certain bees, termites and ants.

This study was funded by the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, part of the National Science Foundation’s Biology Directorate. The Developmental Systems Cluster within the division supports research aimed at understanding how interacting developmental processes give rise to the emergent properties of organisms.

Results from Gadau’s study reveal that, compared to other insects, the red harvester ant genome has significantly more genes associated with the sense of smell, as well as detection and metabolism of chemical signals. This is consistent with the fact that ants use chemical signals to communicate.

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