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Current evidence suggests that the last common ancestor of the ants lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, 140-168 million years ago. This ancestor was already eusocial (a term used to describe the highest level of social organisation in a hierarchical classification).

The genome data offers a detailed look at how social behaviour is reflected in the genes of different ants and we may be able to use this data to explore behaviour in other social animals (including humans). Because these seven species share an ancestor, they represent a single origin of eusociality. However, within each lineage, there are independent origins of different types of social organisation, making these species strong candidates to study the molecular mechanisms underlying the evolution of behavioural diversity.

The genomic data also facilitates comparisons that allow a first evaluation of the sociogenome hypothesis. Because eusociality is shared amongst all ants, it might be expected that they share the particular genetic and epigenetic regulatory architecture required to maintain eusociality. Alternatively, 100 million years of social evolution might be enough time to develop new and lineage-specific regulatory mechanisms, owing to the evolution of new forms of social organisation.

The first ant genomes sequenced were those of Harpegnathos saltator (Jerdon's jumping ant) and Camponotus floridanus (Florida carpenter ant), chosen because of their contrasting social structures. H. saltator branched out approximately 100 million years ago and represents the oldest split within the seven sequenced ant species.

The invasive species Linepithema humile (Argentine ant) and Solenopsis invicta (Red imported fire ant), two leaf-cutter ant species Atta cephalotes and Acromyrmex echinatior and Pogonomyrmex barbatus (Red harvester ant), a desert ant that has both environmental and genetic caste determination were next to be sequenced, and the results from these were published in 2011.

Tags: Camponotus | Atta | Solenopsis | Linepithema | Acromyrmex | Evolution | Behaviour | Ants & Humans | Pogonomyrmex | Harpegnathos

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