Can Ants Change Gender?

Traditionally, the ant has two major castes – workers and queens. Workers are non-reproductive and defend the nest, while queens lay eggs and form a colony. The two castes are based on a genetic relationship, although many species are able to change their caste.

Ants have complex group behavior and communication. They have two genome copies and each one determines their sex. The genomes of females are diploid (with two copies of each sex gene) whereas males have one copy.

Males have a shorter lifespan than females. They are smaller, have smaller wings and have longer antennae. They also hold off on work to save energy for reproduction. They do not have sons and they die shortly after mating with a female.

The males’ decreased immunity is expected. They should be more susceptible to infection because of decreased allelic diversity at loci conferring immunity. However, males’ increased sensitivity is unlikely to be caused by their smaller heads.

A recent study published in Current Biology reports that harvester ants do not follow the traditional caste development rules. Instead, they develop a queen-like behavior and a queen-like hormone.

Researchers found that switching the expression of a single protein in the ant’s neurons elevates the ant from worker to queen. The hormone, called Kr-h1, promotes queen-like behaviors. This hormone can be deleted from ant neurons, which would shut down genes associated with queenliness. However, deleting the protein from ants does not alter their DNA. Researchers want to continue their research into epigenetics, the changes that occur over time without changing a species’ DNA.