How Do Ants Know What To Do For A Living?


Although somewhere there may be an ant who chose its profession, like Flik from “A Bug’s Life,” researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that an ant’s job is determined by chemical markers on its DNA. This means that its role in the colony is not hardwired in its genes, but can change based on how the DNA is expressed.

Ants are great for this kind of study because an ant colony is comprised of thousands of “sister” ants (it would be like if you had 1000 twins) so they have almost exactly the same DNA. There are two main types of ants in a colony: the Major ants and the Minor ants. The Major ants are larger, and act like soldiers who defend the colony and carry large food items, while the Minor ants are smaller, smarter, and forage for food.

The scientists found that whether an ant was a Major or a Minor was controlled by chemical changes to its histones (essentially a protein that its DNA is wrapped around inside its cells). When Minors were fed a special chemical inhibitor, their foraging behavior increased. Similarly, when young Majors were injected with the chemical, they also began to forage.

You may be asking why ant behavior is important to people? Well, understanding what, when and how ant social behavior can be determined, will help us understand our own social organization and the chemical changes that happen in our brain as we develop.

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