A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study showing that epigenetics can reprogram social behavior.

The term Epigenetics was coined by a scientist named Conrad H. Waddington in 1942 from the Greek word “epigenesis,” which described the process of genetic development.

Definition of Epigenetics

Epigenetics refers to the heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence; a changed in phenotype without a change in genotype. In other words, Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.

Scientists explain that epigenetic changes happen regularly and naturally. However, several factors such as age, environment, lifestyle, and disease state can influence an epigenetic change

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Epigenetics on carpenter ants

The researchers conducted an experiment Florida carpenter ants. They injected a certain drug into the brains of the ants to change their social behavior. Each carpenter ant plays a different role in the colony (major guard or minor food forager).

Take note the ants are social insects and they form highly organized colonies, which are defined by castes or statuses. Carpenter ants are divided into two classes— the minors serve as “food scouts” and the major developing ants serve as “worker guards.”

The researchers were uncertain about the reason what causes ants to assume their specific roles in the colony since all of them shares the same DNA and genetic characteristics. They assumed that an environmental influence or epigenetic makes the ants behave differently.

The researchers focused their experiment on epigenetics and examined how environmental influences turn on and off the genes in carpenter ants. They isolated a substance or enzyme they used in feeding the ants to determine whether that would change their role from being a major to minor (vice versa).

They wanted to see whether a major ant would abandon its role as a guard and become a food scout. The enzyme used by the researchers affects approximately 160 genes associated with memory, learning and how neurons communicate.

The researched finally found a way to inject the enzyme into the newly-hatched ant’s brain, which changed the behavior of the major workers immediately and became minors (food scouts).

“The results suggest that behavioral malleability in ants, and likely other animals, may be regulated in an epigenetic manner via histone modification,” Daniel Simola, a post-doctoral researcher in the Penn department of cell and development biology. Simola is the lead author of the study.

The researchers found that the brain of young ants was the most vulnerable and easy to manipulate, Feeding the major young ants with the enzyme changed their behavior and became minor food scouting ants for up to 50 days. The result showed an “epigenetic window of vulnerability.”

Exploring Epigenetics on humans

Shelley Berger, another author of the study, said the ants served as “fantastic model” to explore epigenetic processes.

The researchers need to complete more studies before they can make significant conclusions on the impact of epigenetics on the social behavior of humans. Their next step is to use epigenetic manipulation to learn more about the behavioral disorders in human. They want to find out how a diet could influence a person’s behavior.