Ants live in highly organized and regimental caste systems, which might make studying their behavior seem rather facile. But actually, figuring out how individual ants get assigned to particular jobs in a colony has proven to be a complicated mystery.

See, although different castes in ant society contain individuals that look and behave in dramatically different ways, they all nevertheless possess exactly the same genomes. This essentially means that ants aren't born to one particular caste or another. Rather, there must exist epigenetic triggers that cause behavioral changes in the ants after birth.

The question of how ants become who they are is therefore a microcosm of a larger concern. How might personality traits, behavior tendencies and dispositions be affected by epigenetic, environmental triggers in all animals, including humans? And might it be possible to manipulate changes in behavior simply by toggling these triggers?

A recent experiment on carpenter ants, performed by University of Pennsylvania biologist Daniel Simola and colleagues, sheds some eerie light on these questions, reports ArsTechnica. The team managed to isolate just a few enzymes that, if injected into an ant, could make an individual from one caste behave as if it belonged to another caste.

Carpenter ant society includes a division of labor between what are called "majors," large worker guards, and "minors," the smaller, inquisitive food scouts. But when a major is injected with the enzymes identified by researchers, it behaves instead as if it were a minor.

How could such a simple cocktail of enzymes radically alter an ant's whole lot in life? It turns out that these enzymes were capable of tweaking a single gene called Rpd3, and that changes in this gene alone set off a cascade effect that changed the behavior of other genes too. The research shows not just that behavior can be "programmed" by non-genetic factors such as enzymes, but that dramatic shifts can be made to this programming with relatively simple input changes.

Now, ants are not humans, obviously. But similar genetic systems are known to be at work in other animals too, including humans. This leaves open the possibility that human behavior might also be fundamentally altered by exposure to certain enzymes. In other words, it might be possible to influence complex behavioral changes in humans with relatively simple drugs.

If such a drug could ever be isolated that works on humans in a similar way to the ant cocktail, it could open the door to radical behavioral therapies. That could be a good thing... or it could be a really, really frightening thing, depending on your outlook. Such a drug could allow for the equivalent of mind control on a massive scale, behavioral engineering. It sounds like the plot device for every other dystopian science fiction story.

It's an eye-opening scenario worth contemplating. But again, humans are not ants. Whether or not an equivalent substance to the ant cocktail could ever be discovered for humans remains to be seen. For now, it's merely a tantalizing, slightly menacing possibility.

A brave new world it may soon be. That, or the dawn of the zombie apocalypse.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Creepy ant experiment could lead to development of mind-control drugs
An enzyme has been discovered that instantly alters ant behavior. Could it work on people too?