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Biologist's Research Featured on Morgan Freeman Program, 'Through the Wormhole'

SUNY Plattsburgh biologist, Dr. Joel Parker, has some interesting things to say about ants and sex — interesting enough to catch the attention of the Science Channel.

The research that made the Science Channel, and the producers of "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman," stand up and take notice involves the sexual proclivities of red and black ants in the southwest.

Parker’s research shows that, unlike regular ant colonies where queens and workers are the result of matings between females and males, the queens of these southwestern ants need to mate with one kind of male to produce future queens and another kind of male to produce workers.

This dovetailed nicely as the final segment of this season’s episode, “Are There More than Two Sexes?”

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The cable network’s program, which features Freeman’s inimitable voice as its narrator, looks at “space, time, life itself. The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.” Parker and his research partner, Dr. Sara Helms Cahan, a biologist at the University of Vermont, explained how the red and black ant queens produce an army of worker males and a contingent of “princesses,” future queens of the colony.

“The thing that blows me away about ants is when you actually start looking at them from a biological point of view,” Parker said. “They’re more highly advanced evolutionarily than humans. Ants started farming 100 million years before we did; they don’t have to be taught how to farm. It’s all in their genes.”

And “where ants have gone, humanity has followed,” Freeman says in the program. “Joel and Sara think it’s happening again. Today, every human baby is made from the genes of just two people, but we are now experimenting with modifying the human genome with certain genes from other sources. A baby made this way would have more than just two parents.”

Producers Reached Out to Parker

“I can’t even think what our sexual system will be like when we start using some of these technologies to put foreign DNA into our germ line,” Parker said to the camera. “But when that happens, how many parents are we going to have?”

The show’s producers reached out to Parker last spring and asked about a paper he had published on the ant research.

“They told me they were doing this show and that they wanted to film the ants. We had to film at UVM because that’s where the ants are,” Parker said. “It was a lot of fun, but it was intense. Really something — a huge production.” They did not get to view the final product until its original air date.

And although Parker never got to meet Freeman, he said he was looking forward to the show.

“I want to record Morgan Freeman saying my name.”

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