2019 New Investigator Grant
Gregory Pask, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Biology Department, Bucknell University
Eavesdropping on Ants: The Molecular Basis of Chemical Communication in Social Insects
Ants are one of the most fascinating organisms found in nature, where colonies perform sophisticated group behaviors without an easily visible method of communication. Instead, ants and other social insects like bees, wasps, and termites use chemical pheromones to convey messages throughout the colony. Decades of ant research have identified these social cues and the behaviors that they can influence, but we know significantly less about how ants can smell these signals. My lab aims to use a multidisciplinary approach combining biology, chemistry, and neuroscience to explore the pheromone detection system of an emerging model ant species, Harpegnathos saltator. To understand the function of ant olfactory receptors that might smell these social cues, we will insert these ant genes into the fruit fly to determine the specific pheromones they can detect. Compared to the ant olfactory system, the fly and its genetic tools allow for a simplified platform to decode olfactory receptor function. In insects, ants have the largest families of olfactory receptors to date, and these studies can explain how the molecular evolution of these genes has led to functional diversification. This investigation of the chemical communication system in H. saltator will shed light on the evolution of sociality in insects and can extend to highly social insects such as invasive fire ants, destructive termites, and beneficial honeybees. In addition, the proposed work will offer the valuable opportunity to train undergraduate students in insect research that is predominantly conducted at large agricultural universities. The introduction of new student demographics to insect science can potentially lead to advances in both agriculture and human health.