Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Scientists Use CRISPR Gene Editing to Create the World's First Mutant Social Insect

Researchers succeed in deleting key genes from ants, significantly modifying their behavior.

credit: Rockefeller University.

A staple of bad science fiction, mutant ants have been more of a figment of imagination rather than scientific reality. We’ve genetically altered mice and fruit flies, but growing mutant ants has eluded scientists due to the complex life cycle of the little critters. Now two teams announced that they managed to edit out certain genes from lab ants, altering their behavior.  


The team from Rockefeller University published a paper outlining how they removed orco - a gene that plays a key part in an ant’s odor receptors. Deleting the gene by using the CRISPR-Cas9  technique resulted in the ants losing about 90% of their “olfaction”. This made them unable to socialize. The ants also changed in other ways, showing affected behavior. They laid very few eggs, wandered aimlessly, and showed poor parenting.

The other team, including scientists from NYU, Vanderbilt University, University of Pennsylvania, and Arizona State University, also used CRISPR to delete the orco protein in ants to affect their communication through pheromones, causing an "aberrant social behavior and defective neural development."

You can read their paper here.

Researchers modified the ability of the ants to detect pheromones though porous hairs on their antennae. Credit: Rockefeller University.

This kind of interference with the social behavior of ants is considered a success because of the difficulty in altering the nature of insects with such a sophisticated social structure. NYU Professor Claude Desplan, who was involved in one of the studies called the modified ant they created “the first mutant in any social insect.”

“While ant behavior does not directly extend to humans, we believe that this work promises to advance our understanding of social communication, with the potential to shape the design of future research into disorders like schizophrenia, depression or autism that interfere with it,” said Desplan.

Why edit ant genes at all? Daniel Kronauer, author of the Rockefeller University study, says there are “interesting biologic questions” you can only study in ants. 

“It was well known that ant language is produced through pheromones, but now we understand a lot more about how pheromones are perceived,” says Kronauer. “The way ants interact is fundamentally different from how solitary organisms interact, and with these findings we know a bit more about the genetic evolution that enabled ants to create structured societies.”

Check out this animation of how Kronauer and his colleagues tracked color-coded ants, while using an algorithm to analyze the resulting behavior.

LIVE EVENT | Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo


Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

How COVID-19 will change the way we design our homes

Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Coronavirus
COVID-19 is confounding planning for basic human needs, including shelter.
Keep reading Show less
John Moore/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic cripples the economy and kills hundreds of people each day, there is another epidemic that continues to kill tens of thousands of people each year through opioid drug overdose.

Keep reading Show less
Big Think LIVE

Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast