Whether personally or professionally, Daniel Kronauer of Rockefeller University is the sort of biologist who leaves no stone unturned. Passionate about ants and other insects since kindergarten, Dr. Kronauer says he still loves flipping over rocks “just to see what’s crawling around underneath.”
In an amply windowed fourth-floor laboratory on the east side of Manhattan, he and his colleagues are assaying the biology, brain, genetics and behavior of a single species of ant in ambitious, uncompromising detail. The researchers have painstakingly hand-decorated thousands of clonal raider ants, Cerapachys biroi, with bright dots of pink, blue, red and lime-green paint, a color-coded system that allows computers to track the ants’ movements 24 hours a day — and makes them look like walking jelly beans.
The scientists have manipulated the DNA of these ants, creating what Dr. Kronauer says are the world’s first transgenic ants. Among the surprising results is a line of Greta Garbo types that defy the standard ant preference for hypersociality and instead just want to be left alone.
The researchers also have identified the molecular and neural cues that spur ants to act like nurses and feed the young, or to act like queens and breed more young, or to serve as brutal police officers, capturing upstart nestmates, spread-eagling them on the ground and reducing them to so many chitinous splinters.
Dr. Kronauer, who was born and raised in Germany and just turned 40, is tall, sandy-haired, blue-eyed and married to a dentist. He is amiable and direct, and his lab’s ambitions are both lofty and pragmatic.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a fundamental understanding of how a complex biological system works,” Dr. Kronauer said. “I use ants as a model to do this.” As he sees it, ants in a colony are like cells in a multicellular organism, or like neurons in the brain: their fates joined, their labor synchronized, the whole an emergent force to be reckoned with.
“But you can manipulate an ant colony in ways you can’t easily do with a brain,” Dr. Kronauer said. “It’s very modular, and you can take it apart and put it back together again.”