Researchers at the Vanderbilt University are making significant progress in decoding the molecular genetics of ant communication that takes place through a waxy layer of odors that coats their bodies.
“Ants are unique in the insect world because they have more than 400 odorant receptors compared to 60 to 80 in other insects like fruit flies and mosquitoes,” said former Vanderbilt research associate Jesse Slone, who worked on the study under Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Biological Sciences Laurence Zwiebel. “The receptors are arranged in 24 different subfamilies. We selected 25 odor receptors from a number of these groups and decoded them — exposed them to a battery of different chemicals and determined the ones they respond to.”
Research will continue in an effort to find which chemical signals correspond to behaviors, including aggression. In previous studies performed in Zweibel’s lab, researchers were able to create a powerful mosquito repellent with a compound, called VUAA, that overexcites insects’ sense of smell.
“It’s like being closed in an elevator with someone wearing way too much perfume. If it overwhelms your sense of smell, the net result is repellence. We call this ‘excito-repellency,' " said Zwiebel.
The researchers’ most recent study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.