What Can We Learn About Aging From Ants?

Aging is still an area of research that is not very well understood. A group of researchers at the University of Regensburg set out to study ants, in order to find out how much of an impact does lifestyle have on aging, when all other factors are identical across individuals. However, they did not use any kind of ant for this experiment. Instead, they chose a species from Central America that can reproduce through unfertilized eggs. What you get is an entire colony that is the same genetically, but is still divided up into castes.

What the researches found was that the longevity of the ants changed with their caste. For example, the members of the working caste, who take care of the brood, defend the nest, build, and hunt for food had a lifespan of about 7 months, while ants tasked with reproduction lived up to 16 months. So what you see in this nest is that, when all other factors are accounted for, it is the caste of the insect that determines its lifespan.

However, the answer to the question of aging is not so straightforward. Reproduction is usually much more taxing than routine activities in most species, and it leads to faster aging. So what sets these ants apart?

The research involved other social insects such as bees and termites as well, and in all cases, scientists observed similar patterns. Furthermore, scientists have also been able to speed up, slow down, and even reverse aging in ants by changing their tasks or having them mate. Understanding the processes between these strange reactions could offer invaluable insight into our own aging mechanisms, and how they can be slowed down.

The answer may be found (unsurprisingly) within our genetic composition. Most animals and insects have a gene that helps an organism reach reproductive age and produce offspring quickly. Past that point, the organism begins to age rapidly and the odds of survival drop. This gene may seem detrimental, but it also greatly improves the odds of reproduction early on within an organism. The gene may be a result of selection within dangerous environments. Needless to say that a queen in the middle of an ants nest is not in a very dangerous environment.

Not only that, but ants do not live as long if they do not reproduce. The more they reproduce the longer they live, and if you take a worker, and assign it to a reproductive role, the effects of aging are actually reversed. Research into the field is slow at the moment, but advances in genetic research are opening new avenues for scientists.

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