In times of climate change and biodiversity loss around the world, it is tiny ants who are emerging as resilient champions. Almost 15,000 species exist globally, and with their large and numerous colonies in almost every habitat, this makes them among the most abundant of terrestrial animals on the planet. Scientist and AAAS Fellow Corrie Moreau, Ph.D., who studies ant evolution and their associated microbes, says there are even more species of ants than all the birds and mammals added together.
“Most people think there are only two kinds of ants, black ants and red ants, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Moreau explains. There is also so much to learn about them—they have a really complicated social structure, they have a variety of diets and they’re found across the globe.”
The importance of ants for the environment is also underappreciated according to Moreau. In fact, ants turn more soil than earthworms she says. “Even though we think of ourselves as the inventor of skyscrapers, ants have been doing it just below ground. Imagine taking every one of our high rises and flipping it below ground. That leads to soil aeration, it lets nutrients cycle and flow. It also lets water reach habitats that live beneath us.” Ants are also great scavengers and break down lots of decaying material.
The practical applications of ant research extend beyond ecological impacts. Using molecular, genomic, and a myriad of other tools, members of the Moreau Lab at Cornell University are also gleaning information about ants’ social systems, their gut microbiomes and even the material science properties that make their cuticles (outer layers) tough.
Moreau has dissected thousands of ant guts to investigate their microbes, and in doing so, noticed that the ants with the toughest outer "skin", also known as "cuticles", were either predatory or were herbivorous and had gut bacteria. Ants that were generalists (in terms of their diets), had the thinnest, flimsiest cuticles. What this suggests is that ants need enough nitrogen in their diets to have tough outer layers. Moreau has recently collaborated with chemists to explore this question in depth—are gut bacteria providing the resources to build strong, thick cuticles?
“If we’re trying to think about how to make a tougher armor, but make it lightweight, that is something we can absolutely learn from insects. We can also learn whether building things like metals into those armors is effective. And what is the tradeoff between making it lightweight and making it flexible and still being helpful? These are the kinds of questions we’re starting to ask. Ultimately can we look to ants or other insects for the next generation of bulletproof vests?"
Moreau’s passion for ants started during her childhood, growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana but she hit some barriers early on as a young woman. Her parents did not attend college and the only people she knew with college degrees were her high school teachers, so she didn’t know being a scientist was a possibility. She thought her only two options after studying entomology in college would be a high school teacher or working for a pest control company.
“I was fortunate to start working in a lab almost right away in the beginning of my sophomore year, using a molecular tool to understand the evolutionary history of insects,” Moreau recounts. “When I realized you could have all these different ways you could be a scientist and use all these different tools, I was hooked. Since then, I spent lots of time in the field running around the jungles of the world collecting bugs and I think it’s the best job on the planet.”
For as long as Moreau has been involved in science, she has been vehement about increasing diversity across STEM fields. Part of that drive comes from her own experience.
“I’m an entomologist and an evolutionary biologist. Neither of those are incredibly diverse disciplines,” Moreau notes. “Coming up, most of the people I saw in senior roles were all white and male. That was certainly true through almost all of my career. We’re starting to change, but we still haven’t seen the ripple effect go all the way up to the highest positions.”
Besides running her lab, Moreau also teaches a course about the history of racism, bias and exclusion in STEM. Students in the class delve into scientific literature about bias against women, LGBTQ individuals, people of color and people with disabilities. In reviewing these primary sources, the goal at the end of the course is to have a better understanding of the progress made, while focusing on further improvement in terms of actionable items that individuals, departments and institutions can do to make STEM more inclusive going forward.
“I think things like the latest round of Nobel Prizes, 100 years of white men receiving them, has only reinforced that we still have a long way to go,” Moreau says. “It’s not that I diminish the accomplishments of those amazing scientists. They’re at the top of their fields, but it also comes back to the question of how we evaluate contributions within STEM. For people from diverse identities, it’s death by a thousand cuts—it’s not like it happens once and it’s done. It’s constant. It’s daily. It’s the little subtle things that people will say to you or the way they’ll react to you or how they view you. We have to take active steps to ensure that representation in STEM mirrors our own population.”
Opportunities to make STEM more inclusive and to mentor the next generation of scientists are what make Moreau excited about her job in academia. She has the flexibility to pursue questions fundamental to research, while having “aha” moments with her students.
“It’s the breakthroughs they have in the lab or when they’re synthesizing their data and they realize the impact it has,” she says. “It’s one of the best things in the world. I love being present for those ‘aha’ moments and knowing that I’m preparing them to go out into the world, into a variety of different careers within STEM.”