Scitech | Attack of the supersoldiers

Debunking the myth of the Frankenstein ants

Giant-headed supersoldier killer ants. The thought is enough to get anyone’s skin crawling. But wait! This isn’t another 2012 apocalypse story. Contrary to what some have come to believe, these ants have much to offer to science and to our well-being as a species.

McGill’s “Freaky Fridays” are a speaker series aimed at debunking myths surrounding the latest scientific discoveries and bringing to light the facts that underlie them. The talk on October 26 featured Dr. Ehab Abouheif, a biology professor at McGill, and his lab’s remarkable ability to genetically engineer supersoldier ants.

Earlier this year, Abouheif and his research team published a paper in Science describing a major breakthrough – the creation of supersoldier ants by the artificial ‘unleashing’ of ancestral genes in the laboratory. Supersoldiers are twice the size of regular soldier ants with much larger heads and jaws. These supersoldiers are rare – they occur in only a handful of ant species, and are found mainly in the deserts of Arizona. However, after the discovery of the supersoldier ants in Long Island, New York (a long way from their native habitat), Abouheif and his team discovered they could artificially induce the development of supersoldier ants by exposing larvae to a specific hormone called juvenile hormone (JH) at a critical period in their development.  This provided evidence that it was possible to “unlock the hidden potential” of ancestral genes in species where they had not yet been expressed.

This exciting discovery hit the presses like wildfire. Abouheif admitted in an interview with The Daily that the extent of media hype this story received was both surprising and humbling: “It was very exciting, and unexpected.  I was very surprised that there were very reputable resources, and they got the story right on. It was [also] great to see how much we captured the imagination. I’m honoured, because as scientists, we don’t always get this amount of attention. We could toil away for years, and people never get any attention at all.”

However, not all of the media coverage was positive – or accurate. Soon after the initial excitement came another wave of stories with a different tone. Suddenly these supersoldier ants were referred to as “Frankenstein ants” and “monster ants with terrifyingly huge heads and jaws” by such publications as the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.  According to Abouheif, these exaggerated reports brought on a scare with some of the general public. He reported getting emails begging him to stop the research to prevent these ‘monsters’ from being unleashed onto society. When asked how he felt about the negative reactions, Abouheif said “I’m a little worried, because I am afraid that it will be misunderstood…. I hope the importance of the work…doesn’t get lost amongst the crazy stories.”

We’re still far away from creating a team of heroes with super powers, and an army of supersoldier ants is unlikely to start wreaking havoc on our cities. But this research does provide insight into the effects of recent developments in medicine and agriculture. As mentioned in the talk, because of the advances in agriculture, our diet has changed radically within recent years. This has led to a subsequent increase in body mass and change in levels of growth hormones. Abouheif’s research points to the possibility that the interaction between the environment and hormones may have an impact on evolution. These findings can thus provide insight into what effects the changes in our environment may have on us in the coming years.

Such huge advances in science hold the potential for future discoveries. No finding is an end in itself, and we should be sure to expect more exciting discoveries from the Abouheif lab in the future. However, from climate change to advances in medical treatment, popular media has a tendency to exaggerate the facts. Though most reputable sources do get the story right, these blown up versions often capture the attention of the public, and have the potential to spark negative reactions. Considering that most people outside the scientific community receive information from popular media, it is important that the translation of knowledge remains accurate and unbiased.