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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 2 October, 2014

Scientists harness hormones to create ‘super-soldier’ ants

An entire genus of ant – of 1100 species – can be mutated into larger-than-average creatures with a touch of hormones.

A standard-sized Pheidole ant, like this one, will usually grow to 2mm in length. The 'super-soldier' ants can be four times as big.
A standard-sized Pheidole ant, like this one, will usually grow to 2mm in length. The 'super-soldier' ants can be four times as big.
Image: SouthernAnts via Flickr

CANADIAN SCIENTISTS have perfected a procedure which allows an entire genus of ants – consisting of over 1,100 species – to grow to around four times their usual size.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal say that the hormonal effect which allows a small number of ant species to grow to so-called ‘super-soldier’ size – allowing them to deter rivals from attacking their colony – can be modified in other species.

Nine species from the Pheidole genus were already capable of doing this – but the researchers have now been able to replicate the effects with other species by exposing their larvae to a particular type of hormone.

Nature.com explains that the ultimate adult size of an ant is governed by the presence of a ‘juvenile hormone’ while they are larvae. If there are low levels of this hormone, the adults become regular ‘workers’; if they are high, they become soldiers.

In the nine special species, the presence of this hormone can be so great as to cross a second threshold – after which they become ‘super soldiers’.

In their paper published in today’s edition of the journal Science, the scientists dabbed larvae with a similar hormone, methoprene – and saw the same effects replicated in species which otherwise would not grow to such a size.

They believe that their findings may have reawakened an older ability dating back millions of years, where the role of super soldiers was more vital – a similar trait, MSNBC reckons, in the firms of chickens with teeth or the occasional human who is born with a tail.

Super soldiers are tasked with protecting the weaker ants in their colonies from attack by rival colonies, who may seek to take over their nests or access any food supply.

Anyone with a fear of creepy-crawlies can rest easy, though – the scientists have no plans to unleash the super-sized ants on the wider public, and the nine species which naturally grow to such a size are only found in North America.

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