The complex social structure of the red fire ant (Invicta solenopsis), an insect with an invasive spread and one of the most painful bites, is made possible by a DNA fusion known as a "supergen".
The research, led by the University of London, has published the findings in the magazine Nature.
This is the first study to relate supergenes with animal behavior, which researchers have reported, a similar effect could be found in other species.
Originally from South America, the red fire ant It is organized in two different types of social structure: one with a single queen per colony and the other with hundreds of them.
Although they are of the same species, the worker ants of one or another clan are prepared "designed" to kill the queens of the opposing group.
The two groups also differ physiologically: one produces large queens, which accumulate a large amount of fat, and with the ability to fly away to form new colonies. While the other group produces them smaller and more fixed to their colony, where they remain with the workers and the other queens.
The scientists had previously identified a genetic variation between the two groups, but it was not enough to explain how changing a single gene It could produce so many social and physiological differences.
We speculate on the possibility that it could be a "supergen", and now we have confirmed
Says Andrew Bourke, biologist of the East Anglia University.
There are other known cases where supergenes affect complex traits. But this is the first case where a supergenic is shown to support complex social behavior in animals
The "supergen" is nothing more than a grouping of neighboring genes on a chromosome which, in some way, merge and are later transmitted unchanged generation after generation.
In this case, the team found two variants of a "supergen" in a pair of ant chromosomes, comprising more than 600 genes or almost 60 percent of the chromosomes.
This is the first description of a social chromosome, however, it is likely that these types of supergenes that affect social organization also exist in other social insects
As far as human beings are concerned, there is no evidence so far of the existence of "supergenes" in our social organization, according to Bourke.
The red fire ant It has become a plague in the southern United States, China and Australia. His scientific name, Invicta solenopsis, means "the invincible."
The lead author, Laurent Keller, states that the findings could be useful in fighting the multiple invasions of these ants.
One could, for example, manufacture a chemical that contains a synthetic version of a part of the "supergen" that forces workers to kill rival queens, thus slowing the invasive expansion of this species.