A discovery with gigANTic implications

McGill researchers have learned how to transform humble little ants into hulking super soldiers

by Mark Reynolds

Ehab Abouheif, McGill's Canada Research Chair in Developmental Evolution, next to a screen image of a super soldier ant and its smaller cousin taken by Alex Wild (alexanderwild.com). Photo of Ehab Abouheif by Owen Egan.

A physically frail young male from New York is given a special scientifically formulated serum, unleashing strengths previously hidden: he becomes a super soldier, possessed of abilities only conceived of in the near-mythological past.

That is the origin story of Captain America. It is also the origin story of the Pheidole morrisi super soldier.

Pheidole morrisi is an ant, and the man who transformed its larvae into six-legged mini-Hulks is McGill’s own Ehab Abouheif, an associate professor of biology and a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Evolution, whose easy laugh carries almost no trace of a mad scientist’s evil cackle.

Abouheif’s research interest is, broadly speaking, on the interaction between genes and the environment. Ants are an excellent species to study for that, because no matter its genetic content, the fate of any given egg depends on environmental cues – nutrition, temperature, hormones – that determine its “caste.” The Long Island, NY P. morrisi which Abouheif studies typically has three: queens, minor workers and regular soldiers.

“I spotted one day – me and my team, that is - these soldiers that were pretty monstrously large. They were more than twice the size of regular soldiers. We knew that there are species that naturally produce super soldiers, but they all exclusively live in Arizona and New Mexico.”

That the Long Island ants had the ability to develop super soldiers – which are characterized by outsized heads and horror-movie mandibles – was bizarre, especially since the super soldier ants found in Arizona and New Mexico are most useful defending colonies against army ants and fire ants – neither of which are to be found in Long Island.

Abouheif decided to see if he could reproduce the phenomena. He treated larval ants with artificially high doses of a juvenile development hormone at a critical stage of their development in which soldiers were distinguished from workers. The treatment resulted in not just soldiers, but large-headed super soldiers.

“Obviously, that means there is this hidden potential to produce them – it doesn’t express them, but it has the potential,” says Abouheif.

The next step, Abouheif explains, was to try to induce super soldiers in ants residing on other branches of the Pheidole family tree that do not produce them in nature – which he and his lab were able to do, every time.

“What this means is that one of the common ancestors had the potential to produce supersoldiers, but then lost the expression – but the potential remained locked in for at 35 to 60 million years,” explains Abouheif. Human analogues include those rare occurrences of vestigial tails, or ape-like hair – with the right environmental cues, they could reappear in any one of us.

The work has exciting implications for our understanding of our genetic potential, and Atouheif’s research was widely covered in the media – everywhere from the BBC to the World Weekly News (a supermarket tabloid best known for its probing exposés of Bat Boy and the Roswell aliens).

“It captures the imagination – the idea of the Hulk or Captain America," says Atouheif. "Everybody wants that power. It’s the idea that it isn’t just genes, that there are factors in our environment, that maybe we can control, that can unlock these potentialities. It’s very powerful.”