2010. Mount Sinai School of Medicine. PhD.
In social insects, including ants, different castes display striking differences in morphology, reproduction, behavior and lifespan, although they develop from genetically similar embryos. The goal of my study is to understand how the developmental and phenotypic plasticity, reproductive longevity, as well as complex social communication and behaviors are genetically and epigenetically regulated.
In the ant species Harpegnathos saltator, queen vs. worker castes are determined at the larval stage during development. In addition, the Harpegnathos adults also display reproductive and behavioral plasticity: When the queen is lost in the colony, some workers aggressively duel with each other to fight for reproductive dominance. Eventually, a few constant duelers become pseudoqueens, or gamergates, which display queen-like physiology, longevity and behavior. Moreover, when a single worker is isolated, it can also become a gamergate and generate an entire colony. This feature allows me to develop genetic tools in ants. Currently, I lead a group in the laboratories of Drs. Danny Reinberg and Claude Desplan, and use CRISPR gene-targeting approach to generate mutant ants that lack the gene orco, which encodes odorant receptor co-receptor, and characterize the functions of Orco in regulating odorant sensing, behavior, physiology and neural development. I am also analyzing differentially expressed genes (DEGs) in the varied tissues (e.g. brain, fat body, ovary) in different castes or with different genotypes, in order to reveal the molecular mechanisms underlying caste-specific traits in ants, including 5X lifespan extension during the transition from worker to gamergate.