Travis Chen calls his current lab work a serendipitous event. The U3 pharmacology major has spent the last three years working with two major ant species—Formicidae and Myrmicine.
“Like every first year, I was thinking about [medical] school [and] I was volunteering at a hospital, and [that’s when I] realized it wasn’t for me,” Chen explained. “I [had] met a friend who was doing work in the lab I’m working in now, and they were asking for [more] volunteers, so I decided to join.”
Chen is currently working in Ehab Abouheif’s lab, an evolutionary developmental biology lab with a focus on understanding the relationship between genotypes and phenotypes.
Together with Ben Fung, a U3 pharmacology major, they have worked to create a developmental stage table for the Formicidea and Myrmicina ants.
“We basically grew these ant embryos [and] created [developmental stage] tables for them by creating stereotypic stages,” said Chen.
Researchers who need to target specific stages during the ant’s embryogenesis can use staging tables, like Chen’s, as a reference tool.
“If you want to inject DNA and have transgenic effects, then you have [to know] when [the ant] is in its early stages to [use it] before the DNA cellularizes,” stated Chen.
The team managed to find 17 stages in Formicidae in their 13 days of development, and 13 stages for Myrmicina in 10 days. Currently, the team has two papers in the works that promise to be very ‘ant-heavy,’ Chen said.
First, though, Chen had to learn how to work with the ants, develop new protocols that were specific for his species of interest—something that he said proved to be his most difficult challenge—and deal with the ant bites.
“[Fung and I] went into this as first-year students, and we didn’t [know how to do] many techniques, so we had to learn everything from lab protocols and books,” Chen said. “It took us about a year to develop the protocols.”
Chen said he finds the job itself incredibly rewarding, and loves working with the animals.
“Every single one of them is really different,” he said. “The more you work with them, the more you enjoy them.”
After learning more about different ant colonies, Chen explained it became more clear as to why certain species react to certain stimuli. Today, there are 13,000 species of ants catalogued, and scientists predict that the real number should be around 22,000. Furthermore, when comparing the biomass of all the ants in the world to humans, the ratio hovers around one-to-one—a startling comparison.
“They represent 15 to 25 per cent of all land animal biomass,” Chen said.
There’s an abundance of variety amongst the species due to its size. This is what interests Chen the most. Ants display a trait known as polyphenism—in which one genotype can produce many phenotypes. Humans see this most commonly in traits like height, but in ants, these polyphenic traits can cause a much bigger variance within the population.
“[You can have] a worker that comes out of the same embryo as a queen, and the worker lives six months max, and that same queen can live 20 something years,” Chen explained.
Being able to understand these phenotypic differences due to hormonal signaling or environmental stresses can provide valuable insight into things like neurodegenerative diseases. Polyphenisms are new in the genetic field, where people traditionally believed that one genotype would result in one phenotype.
Chen largely attributes his success to his passion for his work, and from it, a love of developmental biology has grown—something he hopes to pursue further.
“I was recommended by my PI [principal investigator] to do a study with a professor at Harvard,” explained Chen. “But it’s up in the air right now.”
When getting into research Chen said that it is important to consider all aspects of the lab experience—not just the science.
“It’s super cool stuff and the people in the lab really love doing the work they’re doing,” Chen said. “It’s not just the research—it’s the people.”