Ants, Epigenetics, and Aging

Aging researchers are looking into ant biochemistry for much the same reasons as they look into bee biochemistry: these insects produce individuals with vastly different life spans. By comparing long-lived and short-lived specialized members of the same species, researchers may gain greater insight into the biochemical mechanisms of aging:

What can ants, not typically known for long life, tell us about human aging? Potentially much, says Liebig. Ants in a colony are genetically closely related, yet these sisters' body types, behavior and purpose can become specialized and vastly different. Queens typically arise as the single reproductive female in an ant colony, living for as long as 30 years in some species. As head of the colony they stay in the nest dedicated to perform one major task, egg-laying, for their whole life. Workers on the other hand perform brood care, colony maintenance, and complex foraging tasks. Among the workers additional behavioral and morphological differences may exist. Some individuals are larger and more robust with a focus on colony defense, which earned them the name soldiers. How can such big differences arise in each of these ant types' longevity and behavior without some real differences in their DNA?

According to Liebig and his collaborators, the answer can be found in the rising field of epigenetics - the study of inherited changes in the activity of genes - for example, when they turned on or off; changes not caused by alterations in the DNA sequence.

It is an interesting field of study, but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for applications to human longevity. That might be decades away - by which time I would hope that more direct approaches to engineering greater human longevity are already well advanced.


Ants are small organisms and as evolution speaks they do not have a well developed brain but their sociality is far developed than humans. How strange is their world? Is this information stored in their DNA? A single colony of ants shows varied types of individuals - A large queen, major and minor workers and males. Their world creates a whole range of different individuals just by altering expression of a single genome. Epigenetic factors may be responsible and thus ants can be used as a model for epigenetic studies

Posted by: PRIYA DAS at August 8th, 2011 12:29 AM

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