Mutant animals and insects were once just figments of our imagination. Now, fiction has finally turned into reality as researchers successfully created the world’s first mutant ants.
In a paper published in the science journal Cell, two groups of researchers conducted separate lab experiments on two different species of ants. A team of scientists from the New York University, led by biologist Claude Desplan, used the jumping ants Harpegnathos saltator found in India because they were potentially fertile.
Separately, another group of researchers from the Rockefeller University, led by biologist Daniel Kronauer, used the Ooceraea biroi species of ant, commonly known as clonal raider ants.World's first #MutantAnts created through CRISPR-Cas9 technology!Click To Tweet
While the studies were conducted by two different teams of researchers, they both acquired the same desired result: they created mother ants that gave birth to future generations of mutant ants.
The Making of Mutant Ants
For decades, scientists have been able to modify the genes of several organisms such as mice and plants. However, creating and growing an actual mutant organism is a different story. It has been attempted countless times, but none succeeded until now.
Through the used of the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9, Desplan and Kronauer’s team were able to modify a gene essential for sensing the pheromones that ants use to communicate.
The CRISPR-Cas9 technique was developed to modify genes by cutting and replacing them. Currently, the same gene editing technology is being used by scientists to test the possibility of repairing or eliminating defective human genes that often lead to inherited diseases.
Going back to the mutant ants, the researchers stated that it would be impossible to remove every individual odor gene from the ants. In fact, they have hundreds of olfactory genes.
However, by removing just the ‘orco‘ gene used by the said crawling insects for odorant receptor co-receptor, their whole olfactory system becomes useless. Without the orco, the mutant ants were rid of their capability to sense pheromones and socialize.
In a statement, Kronauer, who also heads the Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior, said:
“It was well known that ant language is produced through pheromones, but now we understand a lot more about how pheromones are perceived. 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.”
Apparently, 90 percent of the ants’ olfaction got lost after the CRISPR-Cas9 technique application. As observed by the researchers, the behavior of the ants changed drastically.
For instance, the Indian jumping ants wandered away from the colony and refused to look for food. Any female worker jumping ant could still be a pseudo-queen and lay eggs. However, Desplan and his team noticed that the pseudo-queens laid very few eggs and were poor mothers.
The mutant clonal raider ants showed the same sign of being anti-social. Kronauer said:
“Suddenly these ants aren’t really social anymore. They wander off; they don’t join the colony. They just walk around.”
While creating mutant ants is considered a breakthrough, many are still puzzled with what the researchers wanted to achieve by removing the ants’ olfaction. Desplan offered his explanation in a statement to NYU:
“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.”
In Desplan’s view, their research could also open a door for new, model organisms. He firmly believes that genetic engineering techniques would enable scientists to ask very specific questions to an animal that fits their needs. This is a direct opposite of the traditional bioscience method which requires researchers to ask many questions of the same organism.
According to Kronauer, their next project is to introduce a new gene to their subject. “We’ve successfully taken a gene out, and next we’d like to put a gene in. We have a whole new world to explore,” he said.
How could this technology be useful in advancing gene editing methods? Let us know in the comment section below!