Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bostonia article on Traniello Lab

Bostonia, the Boston University alumni magazine, has a big article in its Fall issue about our lab. My advisor is, of course, mentioned prominently. So is my labmate Mario, who is working on ant brains, and they even quoted an ex-member of the lab. And Amy, my other labmate, has a big link to her Ants movie in there. No mention of me, though. Sigh. I love this photo of James, though:


James Traniello in Concord, Massachusetts, where he and colleagues dig up ant colonies to take back to the lab to study ant brain development. Photo by Vernon Doucette

It’s an unlikely starting point for neurobiology research, but James Traniello is in the woodsin Concord, Massachusetts, striding along paths trod by Thoreau. Sweet fern perfumes the air and the ubiquitous Queen Anne’s lace pokes up its white flowers along the side of the trail, even as the Route 2 traffic noise buzzes through the woods. Traniello finds what he is looking for, tell-tale signs of the ant species Pheidole pilifera: tiny piles of seed hulls at nest entrances. It’s warmer on the sun-drenched trail than it is in the woods, so ants build their homes underneath it.

Traniello (CAS’74), a College of Arts and Sciences professor of biology, comes here with his students and colleagues to dig for living colonies of P. pilifera to take back to his lab on Cummington Street. They excavate the nest, suck the ants up with an aspirator, then sort them out, making sure they have the queen, essential to keeping a colony alive.

Almost all ants in a colony are sterile workers and sisters, with assigned roles from nurse to nest keeper to forager to soldier. Traniello wants to know whathappens in ant brains that leads to behavioral specialization. Until recently, scientists didn’t have the tools to even begin answering this question. But with new imaging techniques and neurochemical analyses, the sociobiology of ants is becoming clearer.

Now, with help from a nearly half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, Traniello and his colleagues are trying to discover the neurological basis of ant behavior, and by looking at several different species at the same time, they also hope to understand the evolution of the structure of ant brains. These aren’t just idle questions: Edward O. Wilson, one of Traniello’s doctoral advisors at Harvard, has famously suggested that ant behavior is helpful in understanding the behavior of certain upright biped creatures as well.

Read the rest of the article here.

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