Friday, March 13, 2015

Story Behind Breakthrough Discovery in Abouheif and Szyf Lab at McGill University

The Behind the Scenes Story

This latest paper was published in the journal Nature Communications. This work was done entirely at McGill University. It is the result of a collaboration between Moshe Syzf's lab (Depart of Pharmacology) and Ehab Abouheif's Lab (Department of Biology) at McGill University. 

Chasing after The Florida Carpenter Ant

It first started in 2007, when Rajendhran Rajakumar and I set out to establish a new species in the Abouheif Lab – the Florida carpenter ant (Camponotus floridanus). This species had received a great amount of attention by myrmecologists (scientists who study ants!) who had discovered and described in detail a range of interesting social behaviours. They grow wonderfully in the lab and their diet is well known. This made it a perfect species for the Abouheif lab to start yet another Eco-Evo-Devo adventure. 

Here is what a typical Florida carpenter ant looks like and the typical size range of its workers:

Photo by Melanie Couture and Dominic Ouellete

So, we packed up the shovels and we set out for Apalachicola National Forest in Tallahassee Florida. What a stunning and beautiful place! The trees were memorizing and the nature beautiful. Our study was a molecular biology study, and so most researchers forget what we had to go through in the very first step to find, bring back, and cultivate these ants. It took us 3 years to get it right ...

We had the honour and the privilege of collecting with the great myrmecologist Professor  Walter Tschinkel at Florida State University. We taught us how to dig up ant colonies in the National forest. Here is Rajendhran on his first digs:

We had to dig holes 6 feet deep. Here we were collecting a Camponotus socius another kind of species of Florida carpenter ant:

The Amazing Graduate Students @ McGill

But lets not forget the important role that graduate students play! McGill University is truly blessed with amazing graduate students. Sebastian Alvarado (PhD student in Szyf Lab) and Rajendhran Rajakumar (PhD student in Abouheif lab) started this work in our labs several years ago. Sebastian's wife Maral Tajerian was a grad student in the Department of Biology and encouraged him to talk to Rajendhran, given the shared interest for understanding how genes and environment work together. The two PhD students met, and with great synergy, they began to work together bringing the Abouheif and Syzf labs together in the formal collaboration that led to this major breakthrough. I am very proud of Rajendhran and Sebastian!

After finishing the work at McGill, Sebastian is now a postdoc at Stanford University (Russ Fernando's lab) and Rajendhran is a postdoc at the University of Florida (Marty Cohn's lab) doing different, but really exciting, research. 

Sebastian, while at Stanford, made this really great video for our article – but the work was of course done entirely at McGill University – to promote the work to the general public. 

McGill PhD Student Sebastian Alvarado makes video for public 
understanding of our article

Great job Sebastian! Its a really fun and great Video. I hope Marvel bites and adds our paper to the movie!

In the News

The Syzf and Abouheif Lab breakthrough is making a news splash nationally and internationally, check it out: