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How Insulin Helped Create Ant Societies

Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine‘s Abstractions blog.

Evolution may have coopted an ancient metabolic mechanism to set social insects on the path toward one of the most puzzling behaviors found in nature.Photograph by ekamelev / Pixabay

Ants, wasps, bees, and other social insects live in highly organized “eusocial” colonies where throngs of females forgo reproduction—usually viewed as the cornerstone of evolutionary fitness—to serve the needs of a few egg-laying queens and their offspring. How they got that way has been hard to explain despite more than 150 years of biologists’ efforts. Many researchers have thought the answer would come down to a complex suite of genetic changes that evolved in species-specific ways over a long time.

But new results suggest that a surprisingly simple hormonal mechanism—one that can be found throughout the animal kingdom—may have been enough to set eusociality in

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