While many believe behavior is largely defined by genetic makeup and environmental factors, new research suggests certain drugs can have a life-altering, permanent influence over an individual’s character. The study, out of the University of Pennsylvania, experimented with changing the social behavior of Florida carpenter ants by injecting a drug into their brains, each one playing a different role in the colony.
The researchers focused on epigenetics, which is the study of trait changes caused by external or environmental factors. Epigenetics involves examining how environmental influences turn genes on or off, and how cells read genes to manifest behavior. It provides insight into the huge impact that our life choices can have on DNA; some things that cause epigenetic changes in genes include smoking, stress, and weight. “The results suggest that behavioral malleability in ants, and likely other animals, may be regulated in an epigenetic manner via histone modification,” lead study author Daniel Simola, a post-doctoral researcher in the Penn department of cell and development biology, said in the press release.
Ultimately, the study may lead to a new viewpoint on behavioral flexibility, that epigenetic changes can truly bridge the gap between nature and nurture. Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary developmental biologist at McGill University in Canada, told Science Mag that the research is “a pioneering study establishing a causal link between epigenetic and complex social behavior. These mechanisms may extend far beyond ants to other organisms with social behavior.”