Ants: Clues to Human Development

DNA of Harvester ants studied for queens vs. workers.

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Harvester ants usually are found in dry climates in the West, and exist mostly by eating seeds. “They are considered a pest species because they clear out wheat fields, or, if in meadows, they deter cattle and a cut off parts of vegetation there,’’ Gadau said. “They can be very disturbing at golf courses or public parks. And they have a very painful sting, which lasts longer than that of a wasp or a honeybee.’’

Gadau, who has been stung multiple times, believes that this basic research eventually could lead to improved agriculture practices—protecting crops from destruction by ants—as well as possible new disease treatment approaches, individualized medicine, for example. Moreover, it also could provide a clearer picture of human development.

“Understanding how ants modify the regulation of their gene expression to produce different phenotypes will help us understand how humans develop into different phenotypes.  For example, why do some people become alcoholics, or obese?’’ he said. “Anything not innate has to be an interaction between the environment and the genes.  If we understand these processes at the level of ants, we may gain a more enhanced understanding of how these differences evolve in humans.’’

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