A fresh study by University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) developmental biologists has suggested that drugs can mess with living things’ natural brain systems and permanently alter their behavior.
A team of developmental biologists led by Daniel Simola attempted to isolate a substance they could feed to carpenter ants that might transform their natural behavior.
Carpenter ants are social creatures that live in a caste system, where large and strong members called majors work as guards and small and inquisitive minors work as food scouts. Despite sharing the exact same genomes and parents, minors and majors look and behave dramatically differently. Researchers say the differences must be triggered by environmental factors.
Simola and his colleagues showed that merely injecting one dose of a specific enzyme into a recently-hatched major’s brain could mess with the ant’s epigenome, making it to behave in a way opposite to its natural instinct.
The researchers focused specifically on enzymes that affect 160 genes, including the ones that are associated with memory, learning and the way neurons communicate with one another in the brain. The treatment given to ants made them take on new social roles. The treated majors looked big and strong but they started acting like minors, searching and foraging for food.
The researchers noted that there are similar genetic systems at work in several other species, including humans. The findings were detailed in a recent edition of journal Science.