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How worker ants become queens in an emergency

Ant species in India have an extraordinary solution when a colony’s queen suddenly dies or disappears: worker ants that transform themselves into queens.

Previous research has already discovered that this ant’s brain can change in size depending on its location in the colony. If the queen is missing, a kind of tournament is created where the ants fight with each other over the vacant position, after which the transitional entrance is set in the winner. The brain changes size and the reproductive system is shaped, so that the former working ant can now nurture the next generation.

Researchers have now discovered which hormones and genes play a role. One hormone directs the formation of worker ants and the other the formation of the queen. They were able to test this by giving these hormones to 10-day-old ants. It turns out that they can actually control either of the two functions that an ant has.

Both hormones seem to influence the same mechanism that determines which genes turn on and off in the ant. What remains a mystery: How could environmental factors trigger the switch between the two jobs? What exactly produces one hormone more than another?

But also: Can we find a similar mechanism in other animal species?

Read more: Single transcription factor changes ants into queens. Image credit: Karl Glasstad – Berger Lab.

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