In the comic book "Captain America," the Captain is created after being injected with a top secret "super-soldier serum" capable of transforming even scrawny men into formidable supersoldiers.
Now an international team of scientists led by Dr. Ehab Abouheif of McGill University in Montreal has discovered a simple hormone treatment that could turn this fiction into a reality. That is, if you happen to be an ant.
Abouheif's team has learned how to mutate any ordinary worker ant into a giant-headed, armor-clad "supersoldier" merely by adding a hormone during a particular point in the ant larvae's development, according to the BBC. The breakthrough technique could possibly be used to unlock hidden traits in other species too, say researchers.
All ant species are made up of castes, or groups of ants exclusively designed for specific tasks. Typically an ant colony is made up of the queen, worker ants and drones, but a few ant species have evolved additional, specialized castes that help to meet the peculiar needs of that species. For example, among the more than 1,000 ant species known to encompass the genus Pheidole, only eight contain castes of giant-headed "supersoldiers" that use their oversized noggins to protect the colony from invaders.
Abouheif got the idea of trying to generate these supersoldier traits in otherwise ordinary ants after an unusual encounter collecting Pheidole ants for his research.
"We were collecting [the ants] on Long Island, New York, and we noticed some monstrous-looking soldiers," he said.
Since the species he was observing at the time wasn't known to include a supersoldier caste, Abouheif became curious about where the mega-domed specimens had come from. Closer study revealed that they were actually mutants — ants that had had their development altered after hormonal abnormalities occurred during their larval stage.
Abouheif realized this likely meant that supersoldier traits were inherent — just unexpressed — in the ant species. He went on to use the hormonal treatment to successfully generate a supersoldier caste in at least two "ordinary" ant species that do not naturally express it.
"If you treat any species at the right time in development, just with a hormone, you can induce the development of the supersoldier," he suggested. "The fact that you can induce it in all these different species [that don't naturally have that caste], means that one common ancestor of all these species had [supersoldiers]."
Abouheif also believes that a similar technique could be used to unlock hidden ancestral traits in a variety of organisms besides just ants. For instance, he thinks some crop plants could potentially be altered to produce a higher nutritional value. He even thinks a cure for cancer might be found using the technique.
"Who's to say that all of that crazy growth that occurs in cancer isn't the unleashing of some kind of ancestral potential?" he said.
Maybe a real life Captain America isn't that far off after all.