Although eusociality evolved independently within several orders of insects, research into the molecular underpinnings of the transition towards social complexity has been confined primarily to Hymenoptera (for example, ants and bees). Here we sequence the genome and stage-specific transcriptomes of the dampwood termite Zootermopsis nevadensis (Blattodea) and compare them with similar data for eusocial Hymenoptera, to better identify commonalities and differences in achieving this significant transition. We show an expansion of genes related to male fertility, with upregulated gene expression in male reproductive individuals reflecting the profound differences in mating biology relative to the Hymenoptera. For several chemoreceptor families, we show divergent numbers of genes, which may correspond to the more claustral lifestyle of these termites. We also show similarities in the number and expression of genes related to caste determination mechanisms. Finally, patterns of DNA methylation and alternative splicing support a hypothesized epigenetic regulation of caste differentiation.
Honey bees (Apis mellifera) provide a system for studying social and food-related behavior. A caste of workers performs age-related tasks: young bees (nurses) usually feed the brood and other adult bees inside the nest, while older bees (foragers) forage outside for pollen, a protein/lipid source, or nectar, a carbohydrate source. The workers' transition from nursing to foraging and their foraging preferences correlate with differences in gustatory perception, metabolic gene expression, and endocrine physiology including the endocrine factors vitellogenin (Vg) and juvenile hormone (JH). However, the understanding of connections among social behavior, energy metabolism, and endocrine factors is incomplete. We used RNA interference (RNAi) to perturb the gene network of Vg and JH to learn more about these connections through effects on gustation, gene transcripts, and physiology. The RNAi perturbation was achieved by single and double knockdown of the genes ultraspiracle (usp) and vg, which encode a putative JH receptor and Vg, respectively. The double knockdown enhanced gustatory perception and elevated hemolymph glucose, trehalose, and JH. We also observed transcriptional responses in insulin like peptide 1 (ilp1), the adipokinetic hormone receptor (AKHR), and cGMP-dependent protein kinase (PKG, or “foraging gene” Amfor). Our study demonstrates that the Vg–JH regulatory module controls changes in carbohydrate metabolism, but not lipid metabolism, when worker bees shift from nursing to foraging. The module is also placed upstream of ilp1, AKHR, and PKG for the first time. As insulin, adipokinetic hormone (AKH), and PKG pathways influence metabolism and gustation in many animals, we propose that honey bees have conserved pathways in carbohydrate metabolism and conserved connections between energy metabolism and gustatory perception. Thus, perhaps the bee can make general contributions to the understanding of food-related behavior and metabolic disorders.
Epigenetic inheritance plays an important role in mediating alternative phenotype in highly social species. In order to gain a greater understanding of epigenetic effects in societies, we investigated DNA methylation in the termite Zootermopsis nevadensis. Termites are the most ancient social insects, and developmentally distinct from highly-studied, hymenopteran social insects. We used replicated bisulfite-sequencing to investigate patterns of DNA methylation in both sexes and among castes of Z. nevadensis. We discovered that Z. nevadensis displayed some of the highest levels of DNA methylation found in insects. We also found strong differences in methylation between castes. Methylated genes tended to be uniformly and highly expressed demonstrating the antiquity of associations between intragenic methylation and gene expression. Differentially methylated genes were more likely to be alternatively spliced than not differentially methylated genes, and possessed considerable enrichment for development-associated functions. We further observed strong overrepresentation of multiple transcription factor binding sites and miRNA profiles associated with differential methylation, providing new insights into the possible function of DNA methylation. Overall, our results show that DNA methylation is widespread and associated with caste differences in termites. More generally, this study provides insights into the function of DNA methylation and the success of insect societies.