Transcript: Ted Schultz on Ants, Emergent Behavior, and the Molecular Revolution in Systematics – Episode #4

Corey: Ready to go Steve?

Steve: Yeah, I’m all set. This is your show.

Corey: Awesome. Welcome to Manifold. Our guest today is Ted Schultz. Ted is a research entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History, where he studies leaf-cutter ants. Ted is a specialist in evolution, symbioses, and systematics. Welcome to Manifold, Ted.

Ted: Thank you.

Corey: Here at Manifold we explore the nexus of different fields and perspectives — philosophy and technology, literature and science — which we believe drives creativity and innovation across many fields. Ted’s career as a whole represents an illustration of how bringing together different influences and different outlooks can lead to discovery. So you went to Cornell to study systematics and to study ants. You know, so let’s kind of set the stage for this, right? This is, at the time, 1988 or so.

Steve: What is, I don’t even know what systematics is. What is systematics?

Corey:  So, Ted, we want to get into this later on, but let’s hop into it right now. Could tell us what systematics is?

Steve: I know what ants are.

Ted: Yeah, systematics is, it involves both…it’s the synthesis… it’s a very old discipline. It goes back to the beginning of the study of organisms, where people would systematize, they would put, introduce order, conceptual order into a group of organisms. It evolved into what in modern day is the synthesis of evolution and taxonomy.

Corey: So why did you focus on ants?

Ted: Well, ever since I was a little kid — and I loved all animals, I particularly loved reptiles, amphibians, and insects — I was shocked to learn that I had a book called, that my mother had given me, called The World of Ants, and that book explained that ants live in colonies, and they, they’re altruistic. They sacrifice their lives for each other and they cooperate to raise their young. And there’s a queen who lays the eggs that produce all of the colony members and they do very complicated things. This book described the many complicated things ants do, such as tend aphid cattle, and milk them for honey dew, and protect them from predators, and have wars where different colonies fight with each other. They enslave other ants. So they go out and they steal pupae and larvae from another nest and bring them back and rear them up and make them work for them.

Steve: I think I learned all this from a children’s book about a brother and sister that were shrunk down and lived among ants. And all of these behaviors were as part of the plot in the book. And I think the brother had a pocket knife which allowed him to fight other ants, which they thought of as his stinger. So I don’t know, I don’t if you’re familiar with this book, Ted, but it was very vivid, I think, in, like, third grade or something I read it. 

Ted: No, I don’t… I’d be really interested to know the name of that book.

Steve: But probably, well, yeah, so this would have been, you know, like 1970 or something. But yeah, but I think there was already, there were already children’s books, books which kind of….

Ted: Well I mean, you know, this was probably the late 50’s, and I have a copy of that book now. I’ve tracked it down, and it was illustrated with photographs of ants. I mean, it was very, you know, simple but scientific. And one of the things they talked about was fungus-farming ants, which I now work on. But it made me think like, okay, these really tiny little creatures with really tiny little brains are doing these things that are the equivalent of what humans do in human civilization, like, how is that possible? And that, you know, when I think back on it, I remained interested in that. And I remained interested enough in that that I would actually buy books about social insects and read them even when I wasn’t, you know, I didn’t, had never even taken a college-level biology course. I remember going into a Krochs and Brentano’s and buying Ed Wilson’s The Insect Societies when it came out, I think that was about ’71, and subsequently reading it every day on the metro system in San Francisco, when I would commute to my, I had a dental technician job. I spent two years as a dental technician, so I had one in Oakland. And every day when I commuted back and forth, I was reading Ed Wilson’s book. So I was very much pre-adapted to… That was one of my many interests, and my only problem was sorting out those interests and figuring out what to do with my life that would satisfy as many of them as possible. And so, to answer your question, when went to Cornell, I had settled on evolution and something to do with insects. I mean, I actually got accepted at another institution into another graduate program, and I thought that I was going to go there instead. And it was unlikely I would work on insects there, and this is crazy, but it’s the truth. One night I had a dream. I had angst over this decision, and I went to sleep, and I had this dream. And in the dream I was on this, the lawn of this palatial estate, and I had an insect net, and I was chasing around these insects. And I remember one of the insects was like a cross between a water, an aquatic Hemiptera that has eggs on its back, and a parasitic wasp that had parasitic wasps on its back or something like that. So I woke up realizing, Oh my God, I have to go to Cornell and I have to study insects, so that’s what I did. And I was pretty sure I was going to study ants because of their complexity, because I couldn’t, I still am amazed, that there’s an emergent property… Really, if you, if you get a bunch of, you know, individual solitary insects that have their own set of behaviors, and they do very complicated things, too; but there’s a… but when you get a bunch of insect individuals together with the same sized brains as solitary insects, and they work in a kind of a social network, there are emergent properties that you’re never going to get in a solitary insect that permits them to do things like grow fungi for food. So, I’ve never, I guess, regretted the choice I made to go to Cornell.

Corey: You know, what’s fascinating about ants is again their resemblance to human behavior, and this is clearly part of what inspired E.O. Wilson to write his books. So this, the great trilogy, it’s Insect Societies, Sociobiology, and then On Human Nature. And Wilson looked to these animals and clearly saw the resemblance and then drew it out. I remember reading On Human Nature, which I think came out in ’79, in a class when I was a freshman in college. It had an enormous impact on me, as it was a case where someone’s applying the principles of biology to human beings, and human behavior, and, you know, compared to what was often out there, which was, at least in the popular press, things like Freud, this was just a revelation that this could be scientific.

Steve: Was the term sociobiology, did it already exist before that book came out or did that book coin the term?

Corey: Yeah, he wrote a book called Sociobiology in ’75. But..  

Steve: Okay… so he was already having pies thrown at him.

Corey: No, no, the, it was, Sociobiology is much more actually based, that book is much more based on animal societies, it was sort of in between Insect Societies and On Human Nature. I mean, On Human Nature focused clearly on human beings, and that’s what kind of caused a lot of the controversy.

Steve: So one of the things that I would like, if people today could try to understand what had happened historically. There’s an example of a guy who was just kind of, I think, pursuing his own science and at the time it went against the kind of moral feelings of a bunch of people, and he was ostracized and suffered a lot. And but now what he did was considered completely normal. It’s considered completely standard science, right? And similarly, I think the same thing is going on in lots of fields today.

Corey: Quite possibly.

Ted: Yeah, I remember going to a…. You know, when I was a student at Cornell, I didn’t get out much, and I just hung out with other biologists. So it was always interesting when I hung out with non-biologists. And I remember going to a party that had philosophy grad students, and they were, you know, the couple that I talked to, when they found out what I did and that I knew, you know, Wilson, they, yeah, they really disliked E.O. Wilson. And they disliked the idea that biological principles could apply in pretty much any way to human behavior and human thinking.

Steve: It’s funny because in our adult lives, so at the beginning of our adult lives, E.O. Wilson was public enemy number one for leftist intellectuals, and then by the time later on, like now, he’s sort of this beloved, I guess he’s — is he dead now? — but he’s a kind of grandfather figure, and his most recent final thing was a huge tome about ants and — right, am I wrong about that? I mean, he’s been totally rehabilitated.

Ted: Oh he, yeah, The Ants book is incredible. The Ants. It’s the ultimate reference work about ants, written with Bert Hölldobler. But since, I mean, he’s written a number of books about conservation. I mean, he’s become an icon…

Steve: That’s right, Consilience, right?

Corey: Yeah, Consilience is what brought him to the attention… It’s interesting because I remember seeing him actually at the Smithsonian in the early 2000s.

Ted: Ah.  

Corey: And he’s funny because he was saying how the reaction to him by people on the right was fascinating because they kind of assumed because a lot people on the left were criticizing him, that he must have been one of them. And he’s talked about getting invited to these conservative conferences and talking about the reason that we need to keep the national forest part of the, kind of, collective trust. And he said It was like putting up the cross in front of Dracula. These people, conservatives went crazy over this. So he’s a singular guy, he followed his own kind of intellectual lights. But there’s no doubt the attitudes towards him have polarized and changed

Corey: As a child, he’s blind in one eye, and I don’t know if, I think it was a fishing accident that blinded him…

Ted: I think so.

Corey: …but he said he needed something he could do that involves…

Ted: I think it was a fish hook.

Corey: …yeah, and he needs something, he realized he could focus on fairly small things and having a mic, having a little, you know, magnifying glass as a kid, it opened up a world of insects to him. This leads us into our, actually our next topic, because partly what we want to talk to you about is kind of small-scale scientific revolutions, and you actually occupy a very interesting place in the revolution of systematics, from morphology to the molecular movement. And Wilson in many ways represents, he’s like the paradigmatic classical morphological researcher studying ant evolution. So could tell us a little bit about, you know, these two sides you had in the change from how systematics was studied before, and how it’s studied now.

Steve: Can I just ask a question? So, I mean, you can imagine before we knew about genetics and DNA that you could just, systematics, I assume, just meant to, sort of, I’ll lump these guys together because they kind of look alike or they behave alike. But I didn’t actually know about their DNA, and I couldn’t tell who, which species were more related to each other. But presumably with modern DNA techniques, there’s no question, I can just tell how closely related two species, I can just calculate the genetic distance between two species. And so, is that what you’re referring to, is some change in the way that…?

Ted: That’s right.

Corey: So Ted, talk about your dissertation.  

Ted: So, the only qualifier I would put on that is that it’s not always without question. So even with all the molecular data we have, there’s some ambiguity still, but it’s completely different. And as I said, you know, taxonomy and systemization existed before we were aware of evolution. And they were obviously based on morphology.  Put… Clumping things into groups was based on morphology. There were more or less strict systems for doing that. Some… The history of this is very, very interesting and fun. There were lots of strange systems for grouping organisms together. Once we knew about evolution, I think it became clear that we were shooting for grouping them together in some way that also reflected evolution, although that went through a century of disagreement, because there were no explicit ways, of explicit sort of algorithmic ways, of grouping things together based on morphology. A whole lot of subjectivity and sort of intuition went into… I mean, people produced evolutionary trees based on morphology, in many cases pretty accurate because, you know, things like, has a backbone, doesn’t have a backbone, you know, there’s all kinds of morphological characters that can give you very clear ideas about groupings at some level. And then there was a big, the first sort of revolution took place sort of in the late 50s, mostly in the 60s, which were various algorithmic procedures for converting morphological data into explicit phylogenies, evolutionary trees, without a whole lot of subjectivity going into them except at the stage where you’re defining the morphological characters. And so that produced a bunch of very entertaining to read — more or less entertaining to read— arguments in the literature for about two decades. Well, those arguments are still going on now, but not to the extent they were then. Distance methods, likelihood methods, parsimony… but really, distance and parsimony were the two main ones at that time. But then people started getting genetic data, you know. First it was hybridization, the extent, you know, at what point two molecules from two different organisms would bind as… But then we started getting sequence data, and I was just, I guess, really lucky to… I, my… Part of my PhD thesis was molecular, but part of my PhD thesis was based entirely on morphology. So I created a phylogeny of fungus-farming ants based solely on morphology.

Corey: So you were actually right at the line between these two traditions.

Ted: I was.

Corey: It’s interesting because you have a lot of discussion about scientific revolution and change. And the question is whether, you know, two paradigms are commensurate or not, and whether they’re speaking to each other, and it just seems pretty clear that, you know, there’s obvious communication because someone like you is dead in the middle of them.

Steve: You know, the story you were just telling, Ted, reminded me of, in the case of human origins, the linguists actually studying…

Ted: Ah, yeah.

Steve: …linguistic similarities between languages. A subset of linguists had gotten the story pretty much right about the evolution of Indo-European languages and who, you know, which groups colonized Europe and things like this. And that turned out later, just in the last I’d say decade, to be verified now by DNA. But without the DNA, it would have been just a subject controversy forever, because there were just camps that wouldn’t, you know, couldn’t convince each other who was right. But there was one group, I believe, that was completely right…

Ted: Wow

Steve: …about exactly how it worked. And so it sounds just like, a little bit like your story, actually.

Corey: So you know, Ted, I wanted, then I want to go into some really interesting event in your career, right? Towards end of graduate school, you were working with two groups of researchers on the first phylogeny to connect how ants evolved, how the fungus they farm evolved. And this led to two papers published side by side in Science magazine, two competing groups, and you were the common element linking the two. Can you tell us how that paper arose? It’s sort of remarkable.

Ted: Yeah, I mean, in retrospect, it’s even more remarkable than I knew at the time. And I knew at the time it was pretty unusual. I… so, yes, I wound up as a co-author on two different papers which, other than me, had no other overlapping authors, in the same issue of Science, both presenting molecular-based fungal phylogenies, phylogenies of the fungi grown by fungus-farming ants. So, largely overlapping stories. So why would Science publish both of them? You know, that has to do, I guess, in part with the politics of it. On one paper, there were, well, on both papers everybody was senior to me. I was a graduate student, but I had gone on a trip to South America, collected a bunch of fungus-farming ant nests and brought them back. And I was, and I had taught myself how to take care of them in the lab. So I had in the lab a source of the fungi and the ants across a fairly broad phylogenetic sample distance. So I had species from a from a lot of the different genera. And I was simultaneously working on a phylogeny of the ants based, as I said, just on morphology. And I entered into, I loved, I welcomed collaboration, and I was collaborating with a lot of different people on a lot of different things. One of those things was the fungi, and I was collaborating with a mycologist and someone who I had gone to grad school with and who was now a post-doc still on the Cornell campus. And this old friend of mine who had become a mycologist who I had known before I ever took a biology course…

Corey: Is this Ulrich?

Ted: No, Ulrich was the grad student who became a post-doc. It was Steve Rayner, who I still work with today. He’s a mycologist at the USDA in Beltsville, just down the road from here, and we still work together on the attine fungi. So, I, yeah, it…  I was working with Ignacio Chapela and Ulrich Mueller at Cornell on the fungi, culturing them, doing all the things you do with fungi. Ignacio moved down to Beltsville to Washington D. C., met Steve Rayner, who was a post-doc at the USDA at the time. Steve told him, Oh, I have all the tools for to sequence these fungi. So Ignacio called me and Ulrich up and said, you know, What do you think? Should we, should we join up with Steve? And I said, Steve who? Steve Rayner? Oh, my God, that’s my old friend Steve Rayner! Absolutely! Absolutely. There’s no, you know, this is beyond coincidence, you know. So then Steve got involved, we got molecular data. But meanwhile, I was working with this other guy, Jim Wetterer, who I still work with, and he was working with a team out at — what’s it called? — famous laboratory on the east coast that is very famous for molecular, pioneering molecular work. And that… So my friend Jim Wetterer joined up with someone out there and they were producing a fungal phylogeny. And the fungi that they were using were a little different from the fungi that we were using in the group with Steve and Ignacio and Ulrich. And at some… And I kept telling the groups about each other and they didn’t want to have anything to do with each other. And then at some point we submitted our paper, and Jim Wetterer and company had submitted their paper, and then, yeah, one of the authors on the other paper called up the editor of Science and said that I was being unethical by, sort of, ferrying ideas across both groups. So then, I mean, the way it happened was really funny. I went off on a trip and I came back, and my advisor, who was just a wonderful guy, said to me, like, yeah, you got a call from this guy, very, you know, very well-known biologist. And he said that you were in a lot of trouble, that you’d done something unethical. And I said, Bill, what did you say to him? Oh I said, That’s just impossible! Ted would never do anything unethical, that’s crazy. [unintelligible interjection] So I wound up having to talk to the editor of Science at the time and explained very carefully what I had done. And I think, I mean, I definitely hadn’t done anything unethical. I had informed both groups about each other, and in the end, I think because he was convinced of that, their politic solution to the problem was to publish both papers.

Corey: So this is the end of the molecular revolution in systematics and fungi and ants. And then after that, you went to, took your current position at the Smithsonian. And could you just describe a little bit the ways in which your research has changed since that time? Has it been kind of continuous development, or have there been other pretty big jumps in technology methods?

Ted: Well, in one sense it’s been continuous.  I’m very simple minded. I have a particular goal, and that goal has now spanned my career. I want to understand how ants figured out how to conduct very complex agriculture. Now there’s a lot of elements to that, and in that way, it’s maybe not so simple minded. It’s a complicated question to answer, but it’s a very simple core question. But along the way, I’ve, as anyone would: a) gotten involved in a lot of different projects, so I work on the phylogeny of all ants, I even work on phylogenetics of non-ants on occasion, I work on other aspects of ants besides strictly phylogenetics. And in another way, it’s more complicated, in that the methods keep evolving and changing and all for the better.

Steve: So, Ted, can I ask you a question? In other species, I think, like Drosophila and even some, you know, tunneling moles and things like this, it’s known that pretty complicated behavior are under direct genetic control. And is it well known in ants whether that’s the case?

Ted:  It’s yes, it’s pretty clear that it’s under genetic control. I mean, there are, you know, environmental cues and things that…. So ants can learn, they can discover a food source and remember where it is. I mean, as you might expect, things like that, they can tell each other where that is, so… But, most, even that, it has, I mean, a fundamental hardwired component to it. It’s all hardwired. These complex behaviors that ants do are the result of hardwiring, ultimately, of hardwiring.

Steve: And is that pretty much accepted by everyone? Or are there other people who don’t like that conclusion?

Ted: No, I think it’s pretty much accepted by everyone who studies social insects. But that’s not to say, so, just as — I think this is a pretty good analogy — just as your nerve cells are not, you know, have a fairly simple repertoire of inputs and outputs and responses to inputs, your individual ant, due to hardwiring, has, you know, much more complex but still kind of simple repertoire, behavioral repertoire. But when you put a bunch of those ants together, I think there really are certain emergent behaviors that are colony-level behaviors that are at a whole layer of complexity on top of that, that make them capable as a colony of doing very complicated things like farming fungi.

Steve: So Corey, can I ask, you probably know the answer to this… So I, my understanding was there was this guy, Sydney Brenner [N.B. correction on-screen to Seymour Benzer], who showed that various mutant species of Drosophila had, you know, very different but complex behaviors that were directly under genetic control.

Corey: So Brenner is one of the people… I’m not sure Brenner worked on Drosophila so much. Brenner was known, I believe, for working out the wiring diagram and Lindy diagrams of C. elegans.

Steve: So I see, maybe it’s not Brenner.

Corey: Yeah, it was, there’s been a whole history of Drosophila genetics, but it’s widely understood that insects have an enormous repertoire of hardwired behaviors. What’s been kind of interesting over the past couple years is realizing that certain things in insects are not hardwired, so they actually do learn. Ted talked about insect navigation, and they can learn the location of landmarks, how to get back to their nests. It turns out that flies actually often learn, if they’re in a group, who’s aggressive and who you should avoid. And so they actually learn their place in a dominance hierarchy. So you know, as organisms become more complicated, they have more and more learned behavior. But I think what we learned is insects at almost every level of structure, organisms at almost every level of structure have both learned and hardwired behaviors. Does that seem reasonable Ted?

Ted: Yeah. And that just triggered a memory that I can’t help but tell you about. It turns out there’s these vespid wasps that have facial rec, they can recognize each other’s faces. So they have these varied maculations, like markings on their faces, and it’s been shown through experiment that they recognize other individual wasps in their colonies visually, based on their faces.

Corey: That’s fabulous. It really shows that even, you know, insects have very, very small brains, and they’ve got to do a lot with them, right? But with, you know, there’s a lot of parsimony in the insect nervous system. We talked about this before, the fact that insect nerves are often not… You know, our nerve cells are often very specialized in functions they perform, and insects are not. They can often perform different functions depending upon which networks they’re involved with. But the fact that you can cram so many behaviors in such a small brain really is a function of this kind of efficiency of the system. So Ted, I would like to hear a little more about the changes in your methods, right? You started off when you’re looking at, you’ve been effectively doing what’s called genetics on ants originally, and now you’re working on genomics, looking at larger numbers of genes. What has the ability to look at so many genes allowed you to do? Have you been able to answer questions you couldn’t answer before?

Ted: Absolutely, I mean… So again, kind of my simple-minded approach to things is I want to reconstruct evolutionary history, and basically I look at morphology or genetic data as sources of information for reconstructing evolutionary history, not so much as a source of information about morphology per se or genetics per se, although I am also very interested in those things. So with morphology — we showed this also at the level of all ants — there’s a fair amount of morphological information on phylogeny, but it’s confounded by a whole lot of parallelism and convergence. So things that you think would group two things into the same cluster are actually parallelisms, and those two things don’t belong together at all. And so those will confound the genuinely phylogenetically informative characters. So then I thought, okay, I’m getting on the bandwagon here, and I’m gonna learn how to sequence DNA and use that as evidence on phylogeny; which I did for many years, and ultimately working with a group of ant systematists on this thing called the Ant Tree of Life Project. We developed eleven nuclear protein coding genes that were giving us pretty reasonable phylogenies, and that showed us, well, here’s the morphological characters that worked, and here’s the morphological characters that were confusing us. But even those eleven genes wasn’t really enough. And then — and this is one of the kinds of things that happens that you could never have been able to predict, or at least I wouldn’t have predicted, that just changed my life — we now have methods for getting genome-wide data. Obviously, we can get whole genomes, but it’s too expensive. And it’s basically just too expensive for us to get whole genomes for every taxon we want to put into that evolutionary tree, which is hundreds and hundreds of taxons. But what we can do now is, for a very pretty affordable cost, grab about 600 base pair snippets of the genome from across the entire genome, across all the chromosomes and all the genome, so that we have something like 2000 to 2500 such snippets. And when you put all those together, the amount of data is just phenomenal. And it has basically resolved relationships, phylogenetics, it’s basically created evolutionary trees that are maximally well supported, with a few exceptions. But for the most part, it’s given us phylogenies we can actually trust. I certainly have a lot of confidence in these phylogenies. So it’s giving me what I’ve always wanted, which is an accurate evolutionary tree for the fungus-farming ants and for all ants, too. So now my… well, first of all, one of my problems is getting the same thing for the fungi that the ants grow, and I’m in the process of doing that. And the other thing is getting more ants. It kind of brings it back full circle to the naturalist part of what I do, in that I know I can get sufficient genetic data; what I can’t get are these rare and endangered fungus-farming ant species that I know are out there because of museum collections. So that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing, actually, is getting the samples that we need to add to these phylogenies.

Corey: So Ted, what do you think is going to be the focus of the next generation of myrmecologists, people study ants? What do you think, you know, your post-docs and your students are going to be focusing on, both as far as your research questions and topics in other areas such as conservation?

Ted: Well, I mean, my post-docs are probably not going to be representative of the whole, because what I think that they would focus on is — and it’s one, you know, major set of questions about how symbionts (in this case, ants and their cultivated fungi or the various other microbial symbionts in the system) co-evolve or don’t co-evolve with one another over long periods of time, and in addition to getting these patterns of co-evolution, which is what I focused on — so getting increasingly good phylogenies of the ants and increasingly good phylogenies of the fungi, so that we can see patterns of concordance and non-concordance across those phylogenies, which will then suggest what’s going on, or will be consistent with certain hypotheses and inconsistent with certain others — now, I think, increasingly, and it’s happening, future students will be able to look at the actually underlying genetics of this, so they’ll be able to see at the gene level what genes are involved in these co-evolutionary dynamics, and what genes have undergone rapid evolution, what genes have sort of exploded into a multi-gene families, what genes have changed, undergone a whole lot of change, and actually start being able to answer, access what’s going on at that level. But then in ants as a whole, I think that in my narrow field, we’ll have an increasingly better idea of when ants originated and how they’ve diversified through time. There’s a lot of fantastic fossil ant work going on now, too. It can’t make use of genetics exactly. But it’s telling us a lot about early ant evolution and about big groups of ants that no longer exist that were pretty strange. But hopefully, we’ll have increasingly accurate phylogenies that will tell us the history of ant evolution. And then once again, people will be able to use those phylogenies to target particular species and look at their genetics. There’s a lot of questions in ants. The most basic one is sociality: like what, you know, what is it about, what is the underlying genetic basis of sociality, of having queens and neuter workers and altruism and cooperation? And there are certainly genetic determinants of this, and we really don’t know… People are asking, some people are cracking that nut, but we really don’t know at this point. But there’s also a lot of other weird stuff. Polymorphism. So, the reason that large ant colonies and even smaller ant colonies in some cases can increase their efficiency is because they create physically different castes. There will be a worker caste and a soldier caste. Or there might be three castes or a continuum of sized workers, each of which performs a particular task. And this kind of division of labor, I think, is a constant theme in the evolution of biological complexity. I mean, you know, we’re evolved from single-celled creatures, and the first multi-celled creatures had all their cells looking the same. And then some of the cells started specializing on one thing and some of them on the others. And then we got tissues and organs and all of that kind of stuff. And now each of our bodies is a colony of cells that, each of which, with a bunch of division of labor… That’s true in the ants at a different level. We don’t really understand — we understand to some extent, thanks to some very good researchers — but we really still do not understand the basis of polymorphism in ants. And when it is advantageous because some ants are not polymorphic. So when it is not advantageous? What are the ecological determinants of that? But in particular, I think we have a real shot at understanding the genetics of it.

Corey: Well, thank you, Ted. This has been fabulous. Steve, do you have any more questions?

Steve: No, I think we’re out of time. But I do find it interesting that the ultimate thing that people aspire to across a broad range of biology is that ultimately we would really want to understand how the genetic programming actually determines the properties of the species and those kind of molecular mechanisms that really give you purchase on what’s happening in the organism.

Ted: Yeah, I think that, you know, some of us thought like, as soon as we can sequence genes, we’re going to figure it all out. And in fact, you’ve got the phenotype here with its morphology and behavior, and you’ve got the genome here. And it’s — this is evo-devo in a nutshell — what links the genetic, the gene sequence to the phenotype is still, in spite of all the things we’ve learned about, you know, Hox genes and stuff, is still largely a black box.

Steve: Yeah, I’d like to say that, although we’ve learned to read out genomes relatively inexpensively, the actual deciphering of the genome, breaking the code, will happen only when we can predict phenotype from genotype directly. And we’re still, actually we’re making progress on that in humans, because there’s so much human data now. But you know, it’s going to take, I hate to tell you this, but you’re gonna have to genotype or sequence potentially millions of ants before you’re able to actually link directly the phenotype to the genotype. You just need very powerful statistics to do stuff like that.

Ted:  And money.

Steve: And money, yes.

Corey: It’s also, of course, going to depend upon the type, the phenotype you’re looking at. I mean, Ted’s talking about…

Steve: Some are under very simple control, and then you can figure it out quickly. But if it’s very polygenic, then you need massive statistics.

Corey: It’s not just polygenic right? It’s also social behavior of all the interaction. When you get to behaviors, you’re interacting with the environment, you’re interacting with many other ants. It’s effectively like trying to get a genetic explanation of the functioning of an economy, so that’s, I think, maybe, a thousand-year project.

Ted: Yeah.

Corey: But thank you for your time, Ted. This has been wonderful. Really appreciate it.

Ted: Well thanks for your interest, it’s been fun.

Corey: Steve?

Steve: That’s it. Thanks a lot for your time, Ted. It was great meeting you.

Ted: Great meeting you.

Corey: Have a good one.