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April 8, 2021

Biology Courses Come Up Big in Hunt for Ants


Last fall, Moreno Valley College's Biology 60 and 61 classes were tasked with thinking small, real small.

US Ants

Thirty-one students participated in the US Ant Project, a national effort to collect and identify ants by DNA barcoding. With funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor (New York) launched a pilot project, Barcoding US Ants, to show the feasibility of citizen scientists using DNA barcodes to identify and map the ant species of the United States.

Barcoding US Ants merges citizen science with DNA barcoding to improve range maps for the ants of the United States. Citizen scientists collect and identify ants at locations throughout the US by monitoring ants' ranges and contribute to data that reveals responses to climate change or the movement of invasive species. Nationally, 50 teams from 23 US states and territories collected and processed over 500 samples of ants. Current range maps are fragmentary, and DNA barcodes exist for only half of the 900 known species of ants in the US. Additionally, sequence variation within species may also be discovered and reveal species diversity or allow tracking of sub-populations. Thus, this project can contribute new, valuable knowledge about an important group of insects that is both familiar and unknown and aims to publish several hundred DNA barcodes to GenBank, the authoritative DNA database.

MVC's team, after a trip to the College bookstore to pick up the kit assembled by Laboratory Technician Tracy Pinckard and an "enjoyable hike" began the painstaking DNA extraction process.

"US Ants' task is to identify and map the ant species using DNA barcoding," Joanna Werner-Fraczek, Ph.D., professor of Biology, said. "Students spent four to six hours collecting samples, extracting DNA, and analyzing the data applying bioinformatic tools."

Through the project, MVC students found two new species, two novel sequences and three new polymorphisms. The data will go into the national Database GeneBank under Moreno Valley College.

The DNA Learning Center staff in Cold Spring Harbor, New York called MVC's team's collection efforts "incredible." While many of the specimens were common pest species there were "definitely a few standout specimens." The DNA Learning Center report said, it found Formica francoeuri "in particular a nice surprise as it had some distinctive characters such as hairy eyes." It was listed as one of the ants on the GeneBank's target list. The students also collected Veromessor pergandei ants which are a typical desert ant, characteristic of the Sonoran desert, yet there are few in the GeneBank.

The public can explore the database at the Database GeneBank by visiting