Scientists in Canada have figured out a way to genetically engineer “supersoldier” ants from ordinary worker ants found in North America.
The supersoldiers have distinctive, enormous heads that they use to protect their colonies.
"We uncovered an ancestral development potential to produce a novel supersoldier subcaste that has been retained throughout a hyperdiverse ant genus that evolved 35 [million] to 60 million years ago,” wrote the authors of research published in the journal Science.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, added a touch of hormone to Pheidole morrisi ants. Eight of the approximately 1,100 species of these ants already have the genetic ability to produce supersoldiers, but researchers only recently noticed them being produced naturally.
Study leader Ehab Abouheif, a developmental biologist, thinks the supersoldier code never went away, but that evolutionary forces triggered its return. This could open a window on how evolution works in other animal species.
“These things are totally unappreciated and have been viewed as slips in the developmental system that don’t go anywhere,” Abouheif told Discover
magazine. “They’ve been seen as the Barnum and Bailey of evolution – interesting oddities that don’t mean anything. They just indicate that there are ancestral genes. But I think they are a driving force in evolution. They are happening all the time, at rare frequencies.”
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