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.

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.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting

The tactics that work now won't work for long.

Politics & Current Affairs

Arms races happen when two sides of a conflict escalate in a series of ever-changing moves intended to outwit the opponent.

Keep reading Show less

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

What if all humanity had to do to save itself was listen?

By working together, and learning from one another, we can build better systems.

Videos
  • Many of the things that we experience, are our imagination manifesting into this physical realm, avers artist Dustin Yellin.
  • People need to completely rethink the way they work together, and learn from one another, that they they can build better systems. If not, things may get "really dark" soon.
  • The first step to enabling cooperation is figuring out where the common ground is. Through this method, despite contrary beliefs, we may be able to find some degree of peace.