By knocking out genes in clonal raider ants, Cerapachys biroi, Rockefeller University's Daniel Kronauer and his lab are exploring not only social behavior, but also complex biological systems as a whole, the New York Times writes.
Ants are known for being social creatures, and after the C. biroi genome was sequenced, Kronauer and his team noticed an expansion of odorant receptor genes that indicated to them that these ants relied heavily on chemical communication, but when they knocked these genes out, they found that the ants became loners and avoided crowds they'd typically join. This has implications for the evolution of sociality in ants, the Times notes.
It adds that Kronauer wants to develop the raider ants as a model organism. According to the Times, he views ants within a colony as cells within an organism. "Our ultimate goal is to have a fundamental understanding of how a complex biological system works," he says. "I use ants as a model to do this."
In this vein, by studying how the ants communicate with one another could shed light on why cancer cells stop listening to outside signals or even how the brain is affected by depression. "By studying the neuromodulators that make ants so sensitive to their social environment," Kronauer adds, "we could learn something fundamental about autism and depression along the way."