Decoding ants' coat of many odors

It's a waxy layer that covers their bodies and is the source of the complex aromas that ants use to communicate. These odorant blends act like biochemical uniforms, identifying individual ants by caste, colony and species. In so doing it helps regulate the ants' behavior, allowing them to navigate the sophisticated social systems that has made ants one of the most successful families of animals on Earth.

"Ants see their world through their nose, their antennae. If you're an ant, you view others by their smell and others view you by your smell," said Laurence Zwiebel, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Biological Sciences, who is studying the molecular basis of ant olfaction.

For some time, scientists have recognized the crucial role these chemical signals play in ants' lives, but now Zwiebel and his collaborators are making major advances in deciphering the molecular genetics of ant olfaction. This deeper level of understanding may not only provide new insights into how ants, honeybees and other social insects create and manage complex societies but it may also provide insight into how other "more advanced" animals do so as well. At the same time, it could produce more effective methods for keeping ants out of the kitchen and off the picnic table.

In a paper published the week of July 10 in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Zwiebel and his collaborators report that they have successfully characterized the function of a number of the receptors that the Indian jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator) uses to identify these odorant blends.

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