One gene controls whether a persistent pest serves one or many queens.
Revolting smell: scent may make fire ants kill impostor queens.
A protein that spots smell controls the power structure of fire ant colonies, Michael Krieger and Kenneth Ross of the University of Georgia, Athens, have discovered1. One form of the protein leads to nests with several queens living in harmony. The other leaves only one ruler.
Fire ants social life is of more than academic interest. The species (Solenopsis invicta) has spread from its South American homeland to become a serious pest in the Southern United States.
Causing a stink
Krieger and Ross have identified Gp-9, the gene that encodes the odour-detecting protein. Each ant has two copies of Gp-9, which can take one of two forms, known as B and b. Nests of BB ants contain one queen, those of Bb ants several; the bb form is lethal. Workers with Bb genes kill BB queens and workers in BB nests execute all queens except their sole ruler.
The identification of the protein is "a very important finding", says Keller. "We knew that a single gene was responsible for the two social forms, but we didnt know if the protein that Gp-9 makes was important. This shows that it really does underlie the two forms - and its exactly the type of gene that youd predict it to be."
Gp-9 controls queen number in three other ant species closely related to fire ants, Krieger and Ross have also found. This suggests that the genetic control originated several million years ago, and has persisted as a single ancestral species evolved and split into several. Krieger suspects that Gp-9 may be at work in many more species.
The leaders of multi-queen nests are less regal than queens that rule alone. They are smaller, and cannot establish new colonies unaided. Krieger thinks that workers tolerate the diminutive despots because they do not recognize them as royals.
JOHN WHITFIELD | © Nature News Service
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