Brain transcriptomic analysis in paper wasps identifies genes associated with behaviour across social insect lineages

Amy L. Toth, Kranthi Varala, Michael T. Henshaw, Sandra L. Rodriguez-Zas, Matthew E. Hudson, Gene E. Robinson


Comparative sociogenomics has the potential to provide important insights into how social behaviour evolved. We examined brain gene expression profiles of the primitively eusocial wasp Polistes metricus and compared the results with a growing base of brain gene expression information for the advanced eusocial honeybee, Apis mellifera. We studied four female wasp groups that show variation in foraging/provisioning behaviour and reproductive status, using our newly developed microarray representing approximately 3248 P. metricus genes based on sequences generated from high-throughput pyrosequencing. We found differences in the expression of approximately 389 genes across the four groups. Pathways known from Drosophila melanogaster to be related to lipid metabolism, heat and stress response, and various forms of solitary behaviour were associated with behavioural differences among wasps. Forty-five per cent of differentially expressed transcripts showed significant associations with foraging/provisioning status, and 14 per cent with reproductive status. By comparing these two gene lists with lists of genes previously shown to be differentially expressed in association with honeybee division of labour, we found a significant overlap of genes associated with foraging/provisioning, but not reproduction, across the two species. These results suggest common molecular roots for foraging division of labour in two independently evolved social insect species and the possibility of more lineage-specific roots of reproductive behaviour. We explore the implications of these findings for the idea that there is a conserved ‘genetic toolkit’ for division of labour across multiple lineages.


  • Present address: Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA.

    • Received January 14, 2010.
    • Accepted February 23, 2010.
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