Researchers have identified olfactory receptors that enable ants to smell and recognize workers, males, and their queen

Smells like queen spirit
A UCR-led team of researchers identified the olfactory receptors ants use to distinguish between colony members so they can work together in a complex, hierarchical society. Credit: Juergen Liebig

Queen ants spend most of their time having babies. To reign supreme in a colony, they exude a special scent, or pheromone, on the waxy surface of their body that suppresses ovary development in their sisters, rendering the latter reproductively inactive workers that find food, nurse the young and protect the colony.

Now, researchers at the University of California, Riverside have begun to unravel the molecular mechanisms behind how ants sense these pheromones and how they control reproduction regulation and other social activities in ant communities. The research, published today in the journal Nature Communications, highlights how ants use olfactory receptors to distinguish between colony members so they can work together in a complex, hierarchical society. The findings could help in the development of new pest management strategies.

The research team led by Anandasankar Ray, an associate professor in the department of Molecular Cell Systems Biology, has identified and characterized more than 20 receptors found on the antennae of worker ants that play a role in the division of labor within colonies. Among these is one receptor that responds specifically to a pheromone produced by queen ants, an interaction that ultimately results in a physiological change to workers' ovaries.

Ants are eusocial insects, meaning they live in cooperative groups where one female and several males are involved in reproduction, and non-breeding individuals play specialized roles, such as caring for the young, finding food and warding off enemies. For years, scientists have been interested in how ants communicate, which is mediated through a group of hydrocarbon pheromones that ants produce and 'wear' like a coat on their bodies. Through these pheromones, ants can discriminate between nestmates and non-nestmates, and recognize different castes within the same colony.

The effort to unravel the molecular mechanism behind ant olfaction took several years and a consortium of collaborators from several universities. In 2015, Ray's group developed a powerful electrophysiology technique in the Camponotus ant species and showed that sensory neurons within tiny hair-like structures on the ant antennae respond with high specificity to a variety of different ant pheromones. With Ray's help this method was set up and tested at Arizona State University in another ant species, Harpegnathos saltator. However, until now, the olfactory receptors responsible for detecting these hydrocarbon pheromones had not been identified in any species.

In the current paper, Ray's group identified and characterized 22 odorant receptors that interact specifically with hydrocarbon pheromones produced by other ants, including one—called HsOr263—that responds to the queen pheromone. These receptors belong to a subfamily of the odorant receptor gene family called the 9-exon subfamily.

"We explored the 9-exon subfamily of first because it is greatly expanded in and other eusocial insects, making it a good place to start looking for receptors that respond to the hydrocarbon pheromones," Ray said.

Accelerating this research, and paving the way for other ant receptors to be identified, was a technique developed in 2014 by Ray and Gregory Pask, a former postdoctoral associate in Ray's lab, to express ant olfactory receptors in a genetically modified Drosophila melanogaster fly. Pask inserted the DNA of ant receptors into the fly genome and used genetics to express the ant receptor in fly antennae.

"Once we expressed an ant receptor in the fly antenna I could directly measure the response to individual hydrocarbons on that receptor one by one," said Pask, lead author of the Nature Communications paper and currently an assistant professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. "Using this method, we then identified for several important hydrocarbons, including ones found on workers, males, or queens."

"Ants and other social insects use a mix of hydrocarbons on their bodies as 'biological barcodes' that communicate key social information within the colony. Our research sheds light on how these 'barcode readers' work at a molecular level," Pask said.

Ray said the identification of ant olfactory receptors provides new insight into the chemical communications systems used by eusocial insects, and future research would explore how these trigger physiological changes, such as the suppression of reproduction.

"Ant olfaction and the way that smell is processed is a fascinating area of neuroscience, but this work also has future practical applications. By increasing our understanding of -mediated communication, we have great potential to be able to manipulate and control insect behavior, which will lead to new pest management strategies," Ray said.

Explore further

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More information: Gregory M. Pask et al, Specialized odorant receptors in social insects that detect cuticular hydrocarbon cues and candidate pheromones, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-00099-1
Journal information: Nature Communications

Citation: Researchers have identified olfactory receptors that enable ants to smell and recognize workers, males, and their queen (2017, August 17) retrieved 13 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

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User comments

Aug 18, 2017
@bubba the fraud
250mg of healthy adult male facial skin surface lipid taken by mouth one time cures opioid addiction without any side effects. The cure is immediate and long lasting (2 years for Charlie Sheen & Ellen Page)
there is absolutely no evidence of this claim at all whatsoever in any form, let alone a reputable format that can be validated

moreover, it is evident that you're still attempting to practice while pushing a described psychotropic medication, which is illegal in Florida as well as the rest of the US

considering the bulk of your evidence is to simply just believe your claims, and you can't provide anything reputable, peer reviewed or even published and verifiable, it's also evident that you have absolutely no background in any STEM field, let alone medicine

Aug 18, 2017
@bubba the FRAUD
face grease is not a "psychotropic medication illegal in Florida
you're lying again

per your own claims it is most definitely psychotropic

that also means, per FLA law, it is illegal to sell and or prescribe as it's properties are covered under medicinal license and prescription only due it's nature by your own admission

(i checked with the FLA bar and MED board which pointedly stated you do not have a license to prescribe or treat, let alone any evidence of passing the boards)

you yourself admit you don't even know what the word psychotropic means, though you have demonstrated, by admission, that said treatments are psychotropic

and because you're too stupid to actually know how to look this up:
A psychoactive drug, psychopharmaceutical, or psychotropic is a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in alterations in perception, mood, consciousness or behavior


Aug 18, 2017
@bubba the FRAUD cont'd
I attended medical school four years
this is irrelevant
i've been going to MIT for 3 years but that doesn't mean i'm a psychiatrist, let alone a surgeon
These are all STEM fields
so what?
a STEM graduate would be at least familiar with the scientific principle
so, where are your studies showing the evidence for your proclamations?
you've presented absolutely nothing other than your personal claims

more to the point: there is NO RECORD of you ever passing the FL (or any other state) med boards
i checked, and because it's available FOIA, that again demonstrates you're a liar
I have published in medline journals 3 times
you still can't provide any evidence or studies validating your claims
that in itself makes you a liar & fraud
Please stop harassing my posts
statements of fact are not harassment
nor are they illegal

don't like it? sue


Aug 18, 2017
@bubba the FRAUD cont'd
I am trying to get colleagues with more resources interested
if this were true you would start with peer reviewed journals and put out a call for resources, not comment on a news aggregate where most professionals ignore the idiots like you in the comments

more to the point - no professional is going to take you seriously if you can't provide evidence for your claims, and you can't do that for anything
This is not for you, and certainly not for you to judge
wrong again
considering i have extensive experience in medicine and a background that far exceeds your own, as well as the fact that i am specifically working in the fields you continually comment on, then not only am i interested in validated science, but i am far better and able to judge than even you

and given that i have many contacts in FL, this makes it considerably more within my scope and interest

your folk remedy is fraudulent - and psychotropics are governed by law

Aug 18, 2017
@bubba the FRAUD - last point
It's a simple home remedy. Your illiterate assertion of criminal conduct is patently absurd
and again, i will point you to FL state law and federal statutes

i've already posted them to you
see also
Daniel Castellanos, The Psychotropic Medication Reference for Judges, Attorneys, Guardians ad Litem and other Legal Professionals Addressing the Use of Psychotropic Medications with Children in State
Custody in Florida
, (2010).

2- Psychotropic Medications Judicial Reference Guide, (March 2010).
not only have you failed to disclose your "research" and psychotropic status, but you've posted this in an uncontrolled media accessible to children, in direct violation of additional FL laws

it is painfully obvious that you didn't seek legal counsel when prompted
this is demonstrated by your continued fraudulent claims while refusing to actually consider access or consequence (even with your stated side effects)

you're an idiot

Aug 20, 2017
@Captain Stumpy

You ever find this: http://pherotruth...g-claims

Sort of sums of the wacko that is Bubba.

Aug 20, 2017
@Captain Stumpy

You ever find this: http://pherotruth...g-claims

Sort of sums of the wacko that is Bubba.
the really sad part about this is that bubba runs around yelling at the top of it's lungs about how [insert random person or studio etc] stole it's ideas for scripts, poems and more

and yet the book you just linked to has plagiarized data straight out of jvkohl's pseudoscience "research"

i am surprised kohl hasn't sued over that BS!


i guess it's ok to plagiarize if you're stealing pseudoscience from another crackpot!

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