Plattsburgh State Associate Biological Sciences Professor Joel Parker was recently featured on the Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole,” hosted by Morgan Freeman, for his groundbreaking research on the genetic coding, gender roles and mating habits of ant colonies that could eventually be applied to the human genome.
Parker began to research the “bizarre” genetic situation of the harvester ant in graduate school, where he worked alongside University of Vermont Biology Chair Sara Cahan.
“Joel is a very creative person. He likes to think outside the box,” Cahan said.
Cahan said the pair have been interacting and working together for approximately 20 years.
“His research career over time has span a lot of questions.” Cahan said of Parker, “I admire that about him.”
The pair discovered the harvester ants in the desert southwest of the United States had colonies composed of one species with four different sexes.
These differences are a crucial part to maintaining a colony.
Parker said the two had to collect ants during the rainy mating season in Arizona.
“Usually, when you think of a sexual system, you think of males and females,” Parker said in the feature, “With our ants, we have a situation where there is two different types of males and two different types of females that are required to keep this population going.”
According to his research, different couplings provide different offspring. Essentially, if a female mates with a male from her own species, another reproductive female, or queen ant, is conceived. However, if a female ant mates with a male ant from the other species, worker ants will develop.
Parker discovered through the harvester ants mating habits that “each species was not being faithful to its own kind.”
Queen ants are strictly responsible for repopulating the colony to which they belong.
“They are cared for and fussed over like the future queens they are destined to be,” Freeman said in the program, “You could think of them as princesses.”
Worker ants forage for food and maintain the nest. They are considered the “backbone” of the colony, according to Through the Wormhole.
“In a species with four sexes, there is more than simply male and female,” Freeman explained in the show, “Joel and Sara believe this system helps ants in a colony become more specific in their roles.”
Parker said he got involved with “Through the Wormhole” after producers reached out to him.
“That first contact is sheer terror,” Parker said of receiving the first line of communication with the show.
He said the process was in full-swing after a few initial skype sessions with producers. Then, the team worked on scouting locations, settling on labs at University of Vermont.
Parker said because the research is so complicated, the show relied on a lot of animation to convey the message of his findings to the public.
“The ‘Wormhole’ people really wanted to get it right,” Parker said.
Cahan said the filming work was “extremely exhausting. She also said the filming process involved a “different story telling” than the scientific questioning and process she was used to.
In his research, Parker eventually found a link between the way ants reproduce and how it could potentially affect the human genome.
Humans are currently composed of the genes of two people per child. However, Freeman said during “Through the Wormhole” that experimenting with the modification of the human genome and inserting genes from other sources could lead to more than two parents per offspring.
“I think we are going to move beyond the simple binary of mother and father,” Cahan said, “I could see it becoming more difficult to be able to easily define who is the parent of a given child.”
Parker said he sees his work as an obligation to constantly teach the public.
“The thing that blows me away about ants is when you actually start looking at them from a biological point of view.” Parker said, “They are more highly-advanced evolutionary than humans.”
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