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Ant queens have a secret weapon to slow down aging

In the animal kingdom, high fertility and reproductive success usually correspond with a shorter lifespan. Queen ants, on the other hand, are an exception to this rule. In fact, ant queens live 10 to 30 times longer than their genetically identical relatives that do not reproduce. A recent study from the University of Florida is shedding new light on this phenomenon.

In collaboration with experts at New York University, UF Professor Hua Yan has discovered that ant queens use a dual system to control their insulin. This system allows the queens to enhance both reproduction and lifespan simultaneously. 

While the ant queens massively boost their insulin production to promote egg development, their ovaries also produce an insulin blocker that slows down the aging process. “Hopefully this finding allows us to better understand the aging process in many animals,” said Professor Yan, who also studies how ants communicate with pheromones to organize their society.

There are questions that remain about whether humans and other mammals could benefit from partially blocking the insulin pathway. For example, calorie restriction slows down insulin production in humans, yet is detrimental to reproduction.

The study, led by NYU researchers Comzit Opachaloemphan and Francisco Carmona-Aldana, was focused on Harpegnathos saltator ants, also known as Indian jumping ants.

When an Indian jumping ant queen dies, the workers duel to determine which ants will become pseudo-queens and reproduce. The new ant queens acquire longer lifespans, but this can be reversed if they are replaced by a true queen. 

The researchers set out to investigate how lifespan extension can be switched on and off, and discovered that pseudo-queens produce much more insulin.

“It’s straightforward, the pseudo-queen is reproductive, so they need insulin. But insulin normally shortens lifespan, yet they have much longer lifespan – why? There must be something in the insulin signaling of the ants that differentially regulates reproduction and longevity,” explained Professor Yan.

The research team discovered that an insulin blocker, Imp-L2, is produced by the newly active ovaries of the pseudo-queen. This insulin blocker slows down the part of the insulin pathway that is responsible for accelerated aging, and leaves the reproduction-boosting part of the signaling pathway intact.

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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