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The Social Insect: Worker vs. Queen

April 15th, 2016

The Social Insect: Worker vs. Queen

Scientists have been trying to find out what determines whether a social insect will become a regular worker or be born into the lofty role of queen for decades. The sterile workers perform the tasks that are necessary to keep the colony surviving and typically live mere weeks or months, while the fertile queen responsible for reproducing can live years, even decades in some species. So, what decides whether ant or bee is a worker or a queen? The popular theory until now was that DNA methylation, a form of genetic regulation that uses chemical tags to turn genes on or off, caused the difference in the insect’s development. However, a new study challenges that theory.

New findings from researchers at Rockefeller University suggest that this theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Previously, researchers would take a group of worker ants and a group of queens and look at the average levels of methylation in the groups. They found that the levels of the workers differed from those of the queens, leading to the current popular theory. In the recent study researchers took multiple groups of ants that were either workers or queens and measured their different methylation levels. They found that the former theory did not hold up under this further scrutiny. They did find differing levels of methylation, but not just between queens and workers. They found differences in methylation levels between groups of workers as well as queens, proving that those differences do not hold true solely between the two classes.

Why do you think some insects become workers and some become queens?

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