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Science fights to control fire ants

Thinking of the ant colony as a superorganism, entomologist Patricia Pietrantonio is searching for the master regulator genes that may help control them.

Fire ants are an invasive species, originally from Argentina. They are very aggressive and have expanded rapidly, invading homes, buildings, electrical equipment and agricultural land. They can displace or eliminate other species like lizards, frogs, birds and mammals, and their mounds can destroy irrigation systems and damage harvesting machinery. The United States Department of Agriculture has estimated that these pests generate losses of up to $5 billion per year. The scientific community is working hard to find better ways to control them, like Dr. Patricia Pietrantonio, a professor of entomology from Texas A&M University. She said:

Our research focuses on understanding the fire ant at the molecular level of interaction, to try to find more rational ways of managing these species.

Knowing more about the ants and their behavior is paramount if we want to control them more effectively. For example, many scientists believe that the ant colony is a superorganism, where the different castes represent the reproductive or circulatory systems. This approach may help scientists devise better strategies to interfere with their reproduction. Pietrantonio explained:

This concept of superorganism in thinking of the queen as the gonad of the superorganism and the workers and the tissue and the circulatory system, is helping us to have a theoretical framework to attack the problem. We need to understand, how does the ant queen produce eggs and how does the flow of energy brought into the mound by the workers transfer to the queen? And how does the transfer of energy result in number of eggs deposited?

By investigating how ants look for food, Pietrantonio┬┤s team might find a way to disrupt the flow of essential nutrients to the colony, an approach that could become more effective than the current methods of control and could provide relief to the people and animals that have been affected by the fire ants. She said:

In our research we are looking for the master regulators, those genes that are at the top of the hierarchy of genes that regulate these pathways.

So the idea is that if we can discover which are these master regulators, maybe then we can interfere with them to weaken and control the fire ants.

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