Tag Archives: pheidole ants

Captain America’s Super Soldier Serum

Last week I got a request by email for a post about superheroes who don’t necessarily have superpowers per se, but instead have been enhanced to operate at a maximum of human capacity and efficiency, such as Captain America.  Even if I hadn’t gotten a specific request by email, I probably would have done my next post on Captain America anyway, in honor of the Avengers opening weekend (if you haven’t seen it yet go, go, go right now, it’s got a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason).  But I also wanted to remind all my readers that any specific requests, by email or comment, are always welcome and I would love to hear feedback about what you would like to read about next.

Steve Rogers was a scrawny kid in the 1940s who failed to meet the physical requirements to join the U.S. army.  He was invited to volunteer as the first test subject for Operation: Rebirth, a project intended to enhance US soldiers to the height of physical perfection.  After injections and ingestion of the “Super Soldier Serum,” Rogers was exposed to a controlled burst of “Vita-Rays” that activated and stabilized the chemicals in his system. The process successfully altered his physiology from its frail state to the maximum of human efficiency, including greatly enhanced musculature and reflexes.  As Captain America, Rogers gained near superhuman agility, strength, speed, endurance, and a reaction time superior to any Olympic athlete who ever competed.  Additionally, his body eliminates the excessive build-up of fatigue-producing poisons in his muscles, granting him phenomenal endurance.

Photo credit Alex Wild @ alexanderwild.com

Recently an international team of scientists led by Dr. Ehab Abouheif of McGill University in Montreal have discovered a simple hormone treatment similar to this fictional super soldier serum that turns ants into giant “supersoldiers”.  All ant colonies are made up of insects of different “castes”, including soldiers and workers.  With simple hormone injections at critical points during the ant larvae’s development, this team was able to “trick” developing ant larvae to turn into a rare and unusual supersoldier caste.

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 heads to protect the colony from invaders.

Since the species he was observing at the time wasn’t known to include a supersoldier caste, Abouheif became curious about where the giant-headed 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.
Additionally, last year, geneticists working at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, Switzerland, have discovered a gene treatment that can turn regular mice into “mighty mice” capable of running at speeds twice as fast as normal, and for 20 minutes longer than normal mice.  The therapy works by knocking out the gene that makes a protein called nuclear receptor corepressor 1, or NCoR1, which is present in the muscles of mice. NCoR1 essentially acts as an off switch, or regulator, for the mitochondria in cells. By knocking the gene out, the mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of a cell, continue to work at full speed without stopping.  The result is a superpowered mouse.  Better yet, the enhancements don’t appear to come at a cost.  Treated mice gained muscle mass but they didn’t require any extra food to keep them going.
Hopefully, research like these studies and others can be developed further in the future to help unlock the true maximum potential of the human race.
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