Now, a team led by researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that a protein called CoRest, a neural repressor that is also found in humans, plays a central role in determining the social behavior of ants. The results, published today in Molecular Cell, also revealed that worker ants called Majors, known as "brawny" soldiers that protect colonies, can be reprogrammed to perform the foraging role -- generally reserved for their sisters, the Minor ants -- up to five days after they emerge as an adult ant. However, the reprogramming is ineffective at the 10-day mark, revealing how narrow the window of epigenetic plasticity is in ants.
"How behavior becomes established in humans is deeply fascinating -- we know it's quite plastic especially during childhood and early adolescence -- however, of course, we cannot study or manipulate this experimentally," said the study's senior author Shelley Berger, PhD, the Daniel S. Och University Professor in the departments of Cell and Developmental Biology and Biology, and director of the Penn Epigenetics Institute. "Ants, with their complex societies and behavior, and similar plasticity, provide a wonderful laboratory model to understand the underlying mechanisms and pathways.
Findings - Body - Work - Berger - Colleagues
The findings add to an extensive body of work, led by Berger and colleagues over the last 12 years, examining the social behavior of ants and the role epigenetics plays in determining that behavior. Ants provide ideal models to study social behavior because each colony is comprised of thousands of individuals -- the queen, who carries out all the egg-laying, and all of her highly-related offspring workers -- with nearly identical genetic makeup, much like human twins. However, the sister workers possess distinct physical traits and behaviors based on caste. For example, Major workers have large heads and powerful mandibles that help protect their...
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