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This article was published 6/1/2012 (3419 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MONTREAL -- They sound like monsters out of science fiction: super-soldier ants that grow to double or triple normal size, with huge oblong heads and giant vicious mandibles they use to defend their colonies from attack.
They are biological anomalies known to occur in a handful of ant species in nature as a result of environmental stresses. But now a Montreal researcher has induced the growth of super-soldiers in his lab and shown this Incredible Hulk-like potential exists in all species -- including humans.
In the process, Ehab Abouheif, Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Montreal's McGill University, may have helped piece together a genetic puzzle.
The findings are groundbreaking for evolutionary theory, Abouheif said, because they show that dormant genes can be locked in place for millions of years, only to re-emerge as a result of environmental conditions.
"Birds with teeth, snakes with fingers, and humans with apelike hair -- these are ancestral traits that pop up regularly in nature," Abouheif explained. "But for the longest time in evolutionary theory, these ancestral traits were thought to go nowhere -- slips in the developmental system that reveal things from the past."
Now, the scientists believe these "slips" are actually dormant traits that are common to every member of a given species.
"What we're showing is that environmental stress is important for evolution," Abouheif said.
The team's findings were published in the most recent edition of the journal Science.
The research began in 2006, when Abouheif first noticed super-soldier ants among a species of ant on Long Island from the genus Pheidole he had been studying for 15 years.
The discovery of the rare super-soldiers among the Long Island ants startled and intrigued Abouheif. He decided to try to duplicate the emergence of the giant warriors in a laboratory setting and in other species of ant, selected randomly.
By applying the growth hormone methoprene to the larvae of various Pheidole ants previously unknown to beget super-soldiers during a "narrow window" in their gestation, the ants developed a huge head and useless wings.
The Science article pointed to nutrition as the trigger for the anomaly, proving in a brand new way the adage: "You are what you eat," Abouheif quipped.
The implications of the discovery are huge, Abouheif added. It could shed light on the causes of certain diseases, like cancer. It could lead to fine-tuned agricultural practices or strategies for maintaining bio-diversity.
-- Postmedia News