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A team of scientists have reportedly discovered a chromosome that they have dubbed the “social chromosome.”

Studying tiny, red, stinging bugs known as Solenopsis invicta, scientists examined the two types of social organization found among the insects.

Some members of the species live in colonies with a single queen, while others tolerate hundreds of queens. The scientists say the discovery of the chromosome may help explain why some colonies allow for more than one queen ant. The study’s leading scientists say the discovery of a gene, found bound up in a bundle of some 600 other genes, could begin to provide scientists with a better understanding of how some creatures create their own social habitats.

“This was a very surprising discovery – similar differences in chromosomal structure are linked to wing patterns in butterflies and to cancer in humans but this is the first supergene ever identified that determines social behavior ” explains co-author Dr. Yannick Wurm, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. “We now understand that chromosomal variants determine social form in the fire ant and it’s possible that special chromosomes also determine fundamental traits such as behavior in other species.”

It remains unclear just how far the study’s discoveries will range. Scientists say it will likely serve many practical uses in terms of better dealing with the pesky insect known all around the world for its painful bite. Wurm noted that him and his colleagues have already mapped out additional research in an attempt to follow up on the latest study and dig deeper into the chromosome to discover which of the 616 genes in the social sequence are responsible for the differences between ants.

“Our discovery could help in developing novel pest-control strategies,” Wurm said. “For example, a pesticide could artificially deactivate the genes in the social chromosome and induce social anarchy within the colony.”

The study was carried out by scientists at Queen Mary, University of London; the University of Lausanne; the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Academia Sinica.

The new genetic analysis is set for publication in the journal Nature.

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