The journal Science has just reported the first ant genome study. Well, the first ant genomes. A pair of them, from the Florida Carpenter Ant Camponotus floridanus and the Indian jumping ant Harpegnathos saltator, both study animals in the lab of Arizona State University’s Juergen Liebig.
Abstract: The organized societies of ants include short-lived worker castes displaying specialized behavior and morphology and long-lived queens dedicated to reproduction. We sequenced and compared the genomes of two socially divergent ant species: Camponotus floridanus and Harpegnathos saltator. Both genomes contained high amounts of CpG, despite the presence of DNA methylation, which in non-Hymenoptera correlates with CpG depletion. Comparison of gene expression in different castes identified up-regulation of telomerase and sirtuin deacetylases in longer-lived H. saltator reproductives, caste-specific expression of microRNAs and SMYD histone methyltransferases, and differential regulation of genes implicated in neuronal function and chemical communication. Our findings provide clues on the molecular differences between castes in these two ants and establish a new experimental model to study epigenetics in aging and behavior.
Below is a schematic from the paper that on a crude level depicts the overall similarity of the new genomes to previously published insect genomes (click to enlarge):
As this project was funded by a private source (the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), the original data are only available to the scientists directly involved. This not only means that outsiders cannot independently verify the results, but that the utility of these genomes to the larger research community is actually pretty small. These genomes- in the short term at least- will serve the careers of a few scientists. And of course some of the findings that emerge from this group’s papers will enter the broad sphere of human knowledge.
But to most working ant biologists, today’s announcement is not as momentous as it may sound. The public genomes coming out shortly (disclaimer: I’ve had a very minor role in one of them) will be of considerably broader impact.