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Hacking Bugs

April 30, 2013

Good news, humanity: The ant man is here! And he’s funded!

No, not Ant-Man of comic-book fame. We’re talking about Neil Tsutsui, an expert in ant genetics and behavior and an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

As we reported back in the Spring 2010 issue, Tsutsui and his colleagues are hard at work to, basically, hack ants.

You see, all ants rely on pheromones to lay down trails and distinguish members of their colony from those of rival colonies. When an ant finds a trail pheromone, it follows the trail. If it encounters another ant smelling of the wrong pheromone, a fight ensues.

The problem in California is an invasion of highly aggressive, if tiny Argentines reeking of chimichurri and malbec. No, wait, scratch that. They just reek of all the same pheromones, because they’re all descendants of a few ants that moved here. They’ve pushed out the native ants, but they don’t fight amongst themselves. All of California is essentially one big supercolony of Argentine ants.

Great news for them, bad news for us, because it leaves the ants more energy to march into our homes and to help destroy our crops. Notably vineyards, where the ants protect scale pests, which feed on the vines and secrete honeydew which is in turn consumed by the ants.

What Tsutsui and Co. have done is to isolate the pheromones that make Argentine ants march and those that make them fight. Better still, he has replicated the pheromones, meaning that we could possibly tell the ants to go somewhere else or to fight each other.

And now, thanks to a Bakar Fellowship, Tsutsui’s ready to start conducting field trials.

Did I mention this is happening at vineyards? Thank goodness the ant man is here!

—Brendan Buhler

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