Comparative Longevity in Ants

If you're of the opinion that there's something interesting to be found in understanding the biology of queen bee longevity, then you might want to take a look at what's going on in the world of ant research of late:

Some ants live longer than others - way longer. And the mapping of the first full genome sequences of ants helps to reveal how two ants from the same colony, and with much the same genetic material, can have such different life histories.


The sequences provide clues that explain why queen ants can live as much as 10 times as long as female worker ants, and researchers are keen to figure out what factors go into determining this extreme longevity. When a queen from an H. saltator colony dies, female worker ants fight to decide who will take over. Once a new queen is selected, her form and function change. She shifts from workaday laborer to fertile egg layer, adjusting body and life history in the process.

The researchers found that in the ants, expression of telomerase, enzymes that help to protect the genetic information at the end of chromosomes, changed along gamergate queens went from worker to egg layer. "That gamergate queen, she starts expressing higher level of telomerase," and her life span increases from that of an average worker ant, Berger explains. She and her colleagues are interested in finding the "aspects of longevity that correlate with this genetic switch."

Ants provide "a natural system where there's a lifespan difference," Smith explains. "We can see where nature has leveraged these [epigenetic] pathways" to extend life.

In addition to questions of longevity, the genetic and epigenetic profiles of ants can provide interesting insights about metabolism. "Queens and workers have very different energy usage profiles," Smith notes. Ants' fat reserves seem to help determine behavior, he explains. "Worker ants don't have much to run on, so they run off to find more food." And because ants have insulin signaling pathways similar to those of humans, researchers might also be able to study crucial health issues such as metabolic syndrome and calorie use.

Ants and bees, (much like naked mole rats, who are also a eusocial species with long-lived queens), stand as extreme examples of what epigenetic can contribute to structure, life span, and metabolism. Radically different animals can result from the same genes, and the difference lies in the way in which those genes are translated into the machinery of biology.

Obviously, this provides researchers who focus on metabolic manipulation with the hope that potential longevity-inducing alterations can be brought to higher mammals, such as we humans. If effective genetic mutations for longevity aren't found, then perhaps other layers of our biological foundation can be altered beneficially. If not the genes, then the way the genes are used.

As always, I think this is the wrong road to engineering longevity for those of us alive today. It most likely won't result in meaningful progress rapidly enough to help us. It can only slow aging, and we will be old already by the time the first useful therapies emerge. The focus should instead be on repairing and reversing damage to the metabolism we already - the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence or similar projects that are actually capable of producing rejuvenation therapies.