Secrets of the Ant Wing: Environmental Influences on the Genome during Development and Evolution
One of most remarkable discoveries to emerge from developmental and evolutionary biology in the last two decades has been that only a small number of genes control the embryonic development of very diverse animal types. How these regulatory genes have been conserved over such large expanses of evolutionary time, and how they have been used to pattern different animal morphologies, such as an ant and a fish, are the questions that form the basis of Dr. Ehab Abouheif's research program.
Dr. Abouheif integrates the ground-breaking tools drawn from developmental and evolutionary biology to explore these questions. During his doctoral and post-doctoral work, he discovered several genes that are involved in the suppression of wings in the wingless workers of different ant species. Ants are remarkable in that - depending only on environmental cues, such as food and temperature - an ant queen will lay an egg that develops into either a winged queen or a wingless worker. The genes that Dr. Abouheif discovered can either be turned on, to produce wings if the egg develops into a winged queen, or turned off, if the egg develops into a wingless worker.
This finding has opened the way to understanding how genes interact with the environment during development, and to explore whether this interaction has an important role to play in how these genes evolve.
As the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Evolution, Dr. Abouheif is continuing his work on ant wing development and evolution. The interdisciplinary nature of his research relies on collaborations between researchers from several different fields including geneticists and developmental and evolutionary biologists. By focusing his research on how the environment influences development and evolution, Dr. Abouheif expects to have a strong influence determining how developmental genes implicated in cancer interact with their environment.