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Fountain of Youth to be found in the anthill?
Date:11/20/2008

ypically arise as the single reproductive female in an ant colony, living for as long as 30 years in some species. As head of the colony they stay in the nest dedicated to perform one major task, egg-laying, for their whole life. Workers on the other hand perform brood care, colony maintenance, and complex foraging tasks. Among the workers additional behavioral and morphological differences may exist. Some individuals are larger and more robust with a focus on colony defense, which earned them the name soldiers. How can such big differences arise in each of these ant types' longevity and behavior without some real differences in their DNA?

According to Liebig and his collaborators, the answer can be found in the rising field of epigenetics the study of inherited changes in the activity of genes - for example, when they turned on or off; changes not caused by alterations in the DNA sequence.

Epigenetic changes occur during normal development and tissue differentiation, and correlate with certain disease states in humans, such as cancer. "But, little is known about the molecular basis for epigenetic changes that underlie aging or behavior," Liebig says. "One advantage of using ants as models is that as individuals they follow very different behavioral and developmental trajectories, and these changes are plastic."

It is this behavioral and developmental plasticity that drew the collaborators to work together. Liebig studies three species of ants, each which allows the HHMI team to examine a different aspect of how epigenetic factors can influence outcomes in behavior, morphology, and longevity.

Harpegnathos saltator (literally meaning "jumping sickle jaw") is a primitive species of ant where workers are able to perform either reproductive or helper tasks. A worker can become a reproductive functional queen, if the original queen dies or is removed. Such a trait is not found in "higher" order ants because these species have becom
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Contact: Margaret Coulombe
margaret.coulombe@asu.edu
480-727-8934
Arizona State University
Source:Eurekalert  

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