There are over 1100 species of Pheidole genus ants, and most individual ants belong to either the worker or soldier caste. In only eight of the Pheidole species, some individuals can belong to a "supersoldier" subcaste instead, and these ants fight off predatory army ant species and bar their way by blocking off the entrances to the nest using their over-sized heads. Now, scientists have managed to create supersoldiers in other species by reactivating ancestral genes.
It is not known why only eight of the species retain the ability and the remainder simply abandon the nests if they are invaded by predatory army ants, but Abouheif said the genes might have been repeatedly reactivated. This would explain anomalies such as the rare instances of supersoldiers he noted in the P. morrisi ants, which is a species not threatened by army ants.
Dr. Abouheif and colleagues think that their work in unlocking ancestral features could find application in fields such as agriculture, where it might be used to breed crops with greater nutritional value. Abouheif also suggests the work might also shed some light on the growth of cancers, which he said could be "the unleashing of some kind of ancestral potential," which might be reversible if it could be identified.
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