Comparative transcriptomics of social insect queen pheromones

Queen pheromones have broadly similar effects on the transcriptome in two ant species and two bee species.


Queen pheromones are chemical signals that mediate reproductive division of labor in eusocial animals. Remarkably, queen pheromones are composed of identical or chemically similar compounds in some ants, wasps and bees, even though these taxa diverged >150MYA and evolved queens and workers independently. To test whether queen pheromones have similar effects across taxa, we measured the transcriptomic consequences of experimental exposure to queen pheromones in workers from two ant and two bee species (genera: Lasius, Apis, Bombus). Queen pheromone exposure affected transcription and splicing at many loci. Many genes responded consistently in multiple species, and the set of pheromone-sensitive genes was enriched for functions relating to lipid biosynthesis and transport, olfaction, production of cuticle, oogenesis, and histone (de)acetylation. Pheromone-sensitive genes tended to be evolutionarily ancient, positively selected, peripheral in the gene coexpression network, hypomethylated, and caste-specific in their expression. Our results reveal how queen pheromones achieve their effects, and suggest that ants and bees use similar genetic modules to achieve reproductive division of labour.

Nature Communications