Canadian research that turned certain kinds of ants into “supersoldiers” with huge oblong heads and giant vicious jaws could have important implications for breeding crops with higher nutritional value or tackling the mechanisms that cause cancer.
McGill University biologist Dr. Ehab Abouheif’s breakthrough discovery came by fusing the fields of ecology, evolution and developmental biology (called “eco-evo-devo”) to uncover the rules that underlie the interactions between an organism’s genes and its environment.
His research revealed that dormant ancestral genes exist in all animals, and that it is possible to revive these genes with the right triggers. His test case was a particular ant genus—Pheidole —that shares a common genetic trait, producing three distinct kinds of workers: minor workers, soldiers and supersoldiers. Though supersoldiers were lost in this genus about 35 to 65 million years ago, Dr. Abouheif’s group showed it was possible to unlock this hidden genetic potential by applying high doses of hormone at a critical stage in the larvae’s development.
Dr. Abouheif, recipient of a 2014 Steacie Memorial Fellowship, believes this powerful evolutionary force could be used to unlock dormant genes in plants to make them healthier and to understand changes in the environment that trigger a genetic trait that causes cancer.
Only 11 years since finishing his Ph.D., Dr. Abouheif has already firmly established himself as an international leader in this emerging field.