The Global Ant Genomics Alliance
Genome Sequences for the Ant Genera of the World
The primary scientific goals of GAGA
This global project on ant genomics will provide a comprehensive dataset of the genomic diversity of the world’s ant genera. Based on the comparative analysis of these data, we will be able to understand global trends of ant evolution and narrow down the genetic features that have been particularly relevant for the diversification and astonishing evolutionary success of ants. Based on recent experience with global-scale bird genome sequencing (Zhang et al. 2014) we expect that obtaining and analyzing ~200 genomes of ant species from across the world will allow major advances in ant (and, indeed, non-ant) biology and will provide the scientific community with a trove of data that will be mined in the service of diverse questions for decades to come.
Towards a genome-based phylogeny of the ants worldwide
The Tree of Life of ants, as it increased in diversity from a single Cretaceous ancestor, remains poorly understood. The hundreds of high-quality annotated ant genomes will allow GAGA to make a major contribution to reconstructing the history of the numerous social adaptations that were gained and sometimes lost again over evolutionary time. Apart from a huge intrinsic value of obtaining the best possible Tree of Life of the ants, a phylogeny based on entire annotated genomes is also vital for mapping already available and newly emerging comparative data to test hypotheses about social evolution at an unprecedented scale. We expect there will be other exciting areas of research to be generated by the GAGA community as well.
The origin and adaptive significance of physically differentiated castes
The ants are the only major lineage of social insects that is unambiguously characterized by obligate reproductive and somatic division of labor mediated by morphologically distinct caste phenotype across all phylogenetic branches. A number of hypotheses on developmental pathway modification exist, but their genomic underpinning and degree of overlap with convergently evolved pathways in social bees is unknown. Fully annotated genomes will allow GAGA to reconstruct the irreversible stepwise changes in developmental pathways and to explain present-day variation in queen, worker and soldier castes from first principles.
Ecological niche occupancy and life-history adaptation
The ca. 15,000 species of ants are distributed all over the globe, ranging more widely than the termites, social bees and wasps. They owe their enormous ecological footprints to a huge versatility in tolerance to extreme environmental conditions and adaptability in nutrition and social life histories. How is it that Cataglyphis desert ants can tolerate temperatures of up to 55C, while other ants such as Prenolepis imparis are out foraging in winter? Fully annotated genomes will allow GAGA to test hypotheses on evolutionary convergence in the genomic underpinning of ecological adaptations that allowed ants to occupy niches in boreal regions, deserts, disturbed habitats, and tropical tree canopies, with direct relevance for evaluating consequences of ongoing climate change.
Origins and adaptive radiations of innovative forms of resource acquisition
While termites remained decomposers, bees retained dependence on pollen and nectar feeding, and wasps remained solitary predators, the ants invented industrial scale fungus farming, predation by mass raiding and seed harvesting, and they domesticated numerous other insects for husbandry. Many of these innovations were extremely successful and led to high rates of speciation and colonization of previously uninhabitable niche-space. Fully annotated genomes combined with extensive natural history knowledge will allow GAGA to explain the highly specialized morphological, behavioral, and physiological adaptations that ants evolved to handle the challenges that accompanied major changes in nutritional life style.
Ant-associated microbiota and their nervous system connections
Bacterial communities associated with digestive systems and other organs of ants are becoming sufficiently known to suggest the hypothesis that they might account for the success of some lineages, either through nutrient supplementation or disease control. Systematic metagenome sequencing of ant-associated microbiota will reveal a large number of novel bacterial symbionts, of which many will have unique metabolic or immune functions. Fully annotated genomes will allow GAGA to connect the functions of these microbes with the expression of specific gene families encoded in ant genomes, and ultimately with epigenetic markers and brain functions that regulate the activity of these bacteria.
What are the advantages of a large scale genomics projects compared to a more focused approach?
Genomes are the universal basis of organismic life. Intriguingly, the genomes of most species are surprisingly similar in terms of genetic content and structure to an extent where even substantial phenotypic differences between species are the result of only subtle genomic differences. By sequencing and analyzing the genomes of many representative species of a single clade, we have a much higher power to detect global trends and specific differences between species. Only by such large-scale projects we are able to retrace how evolutionary processes have shaped the genomes of an entire clade.
A standardized pipeline of sampling, sequencing, assembly and annotation for every genome minimizes methodical biases that would otherwise perturb downstream comparative analyses. By reducing many sources of statistical noise, we achieve a much higher resolution than possible in non-standardized comparative studies.
Learn more about our global collaborators and how to join us!
Use our form if you are interested in becoming part of GAGA or getting more information about the project.
We’ll begin posting resources here as they come online.
See what species we’re targeting to sequence for the project.