The photos of these genetically engineered "supersoldier" ants — with their giant heads and pincers — are a little terrifying. While supersoldier ants can be found in nature, apparently they are quite rare and are genetic accidents. I'm glad of that for personal reasons, but they do have a scientific significance.
Scientists from McGill University came across a few "accidental" bigheaded supersoldier ants, in a normal wild colony in New York. Their interest was piqued since normally such the bigheaded ants can only be found in the Southwest and Mexico. The team wondered if they could work with the two colonies to actually create a supersoldier ant in the lab, taking the mistake out of the equation.
Here's where it starts to read a lot like Frankenstein…
The McGill team theorized the rouge supersoldiers found in New York were a throwback to their ancestors who had been bigger and badder millions of years ago. The giant head and pincers would have been part of their job protecting the weaker ants, larvae and the queen of their colony and possibly to grind up larger bits of food.
They reasoned that as the ants evolved they must have buried supersoldier trait that occasionally allowed for the mistake to happen in the normal colonies.
The scientists used the Pheidole morrisi ants from the Southwest, they knew contained the genetic tool kit for more modern supersoliders, and used a special hormone they produce on the larvae of solider ants from the normal colony. Behold the genetically engineered supersoldier ant.
The McGill scientists wanted to prove that within these ants lay the building blocks from which they evolved over the years. The results suggest the ancestral tool kits hiding in these ants could play an important role in evolving new physical traits in the future.
So while the thought of the supersolider ant might be the stuff of nightmares it actually an interesting look at evolution. The aberration of finding a supersoldier in a normal colony in New York is simply part of the many mistakes nature makes all the time - an interesting version of which is humans with vestigial tails.
"It's been known for a long time that these kinds of slips occur, and they are viewed as the Barnum and Bailey of evolution," said the study's senior researcher Ehab Abouheif, Canada research chair in evolutionary developmental biology at McGill University. "What we are showing for the first time is there is this ancestral potential sitting there, and when poked by the environment it can really unleash this potential that can power evolution."
I think I can resign myself to monster ants — in the lab of course — for the sake of science. I would however, probably draw the line and bringing back the tail in humans though.
Image Credit: Alex Wild