Genomes of eusocial insects code for dramatic examples of phenotypic plasticity and social organization. We compared the genomes of seven ants, the honeybee, and various solitary insects to examine whether eusocial lineages share distinct features of genomic organization. Each ant lineage contains ?4000 novel genes, but only 64 of these genes are conserved among all seven ants. Many gene families have been expanded in ants, notably those involved in chemical communication (e.g., desaturases and odorant receptors). Alignment of the ant genomes revealed reduced purifying selection compared with Drosophila without significantly reduced synteny. Correspondingly, ant genomes exhibit dramatic divergence of noncoding regulatory elements; however, extant conserved regions are enriched for novel noncoding RNAs and transcription factor-binding sites. Comparison of orthologous gene promoters between eusocial and solitary species revealed significant regulatory evolution in both cis (e.g., Creb) and trans (e.g., fork head) for nearly 2000 genes, many of which exhibit phenotypic plasticity. Our results emphasize that genomic changes can occur remarkably fast in ants, because two recently diverged leaf-cutter ant species exhibit faster accumulation of species-specific genes and greater divergence in regulatory elements compared with other ants or Drosophila. Thus, while the "socio-genomes" of ants and the honeybee are broadly characterized by a pervasive pattern of divergence in gene composition and regulation, they preserve lineage-specific regulatory features linked to eusociality. We propose that changes in gene regulation played a key role in the origins of insect eusociality, whereas changes in gene composition were more relevant for lineage-specific eusocial adaptations.
Social organisms rank among the most abundant and ecologically dominant species on Earth, in part due to exclusive recognition systems that allow cooperators to be distinguished from exploiters. Exploiters, such as social parasites, manipulate their hosts recognition systems, whereas cooperators are expected to minimize interference with their partners recognition abilities. Despite our wealth of knowledge about recognition in single-species social nests, less is known of the recognition systems in multi-species nests, particularly involving cooperators. One uncommon type of nesting symbiosis, called parabiosis, involves two species of ants sharing a nest and foraging trails in ostensible cooperation. Here, we investigated recognition cues (cuticular hydrocarbons) and recognition behaviors in the parabiotic mixed-species ant nests of Camponotus femoratus and Crematogaster levior in North-Eastern Amazonia. We found two sympatric, cryptic Cr. levior chemotypes in the population, with one type in each parabiotic colony. Although they share a nest, very few hydrocarbons were shared between Ca. femoratus and either Cr. levior chemotype. The Ca. femoratus hydrocarbons were also unusually long-chained branched alkenes and dienes, compounds not commonly found amongst ants. Despite minimal overlap in hydrocarbon profile, there was evidence of potential interspecific nestmate recognition -Cr. levior ants were more aggressive toward Ca. femoratus non-nestmates than Ca. femoratus nestmates. In contrast to the prediction that sharing a nest could weaken conspecific recognition, each parabiotic species also maintains its own aggressive recognition behaviors to exclude conspecific non-nestmates. This suggests that, despite cohabitation, parabiotic ants maintain their own species-specific colony odors and recognition mechanisms. It is possible that such social symbioses are enabled by the two species each using their own separate recognition cues, and that interspecific nestmate recognition may enable this multi-species cooperative nesting.
Hamilton is probably best known for his seminal work demonstrating the role of kin selection in social evolution. His work made it clear that, for individuals to direct their altruistic behaviours towards appropriate recipients (kin), mechanisms must exist for kin recognition. In the social insects, colonies are typically comprised of kin, and colony recognition cues are used as proxies for kinship cues. Recent years have brought rapid advances in our understanding of the genetic and molecular mechanisms that are used for this process. Here, I review some of the most notable advances, particularly the contributions from recent ant genome sequences and molecular biology.
Most flowering plants establish mutualistic associations with insect pollinators to facilitate sexual reproduction. However, the evolutionary processes that gave rise to these associations remain poorly understood. We reconstructed the times of divergence, diversification patterns, and interaction networks of a diverse group of specialized orchids and their bee pollinators. In contrast to a scenario of coevolution by race formation, we show that fragrance-producing orchids originated at least three times independently after their fragrance-collecting bee mutualists. Whereas orchid diversification has apparently tracked the diversification of orchids bee pollinators, bees appear to have depended on the diverse chemical environment of neotropical forests. We corroborated this apparent asymmetrical dependency by simulating co-extinction cascades in real interaction networks that lacked reciprocal specialization. These results suggest that the diversification of insect-pollinated angiosperms may have been facilitated by the exploitation of preexisting sensory biases of insect pollinators.
Social insect cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) mixtures are among the most complex chemical cues known and are important in nest-mate, caste and species recognition. Despite our growing knowledge of the nature of these cues, we have very little insight into how social insects actually perceive and discriminate among these chemicals. In this study, we use the newly developed technique of differential olfactory conditioning to pure, custom-designed synthetic colony odours to analyse signal discrimination in Argentine ants, Linepithema humile. Our results show that tri-methyl alkanes are more easily learned than single-methyl or straight-chain alkanes. In addition, we reveal that Argentine ants can discriminate between hydrocarbons with different branching patterns and the same chain length, but not always between hydrocarbons with the same branching patterns but different chain length. Our data thus show that biochemical characteristics influence those compounds that ants can discriminate between, and which thus potentially play a role in chemical signalling and nest-mate recognition.
Studies have shown that taxonomically restricted genes are significant in number and important for the evolution of lineage specific traits. Social insects have gained many novel morphological and behavioral traits relative to their solitary ancestors. The task repertoire of an advanced social insect, for example, can be 40-50 tasks, about twice that of a solitary wasp or bee. The genetic basis of this expansion in behavioral repertoire is still poorly understood, and a role for taxonomically restricted genes has not been explored at the whole genome level.
Arising from M. A. Nowak, C. E. Tarnita & E. O. Wilson 466, 1057-1062 (2010); Nowak et al. reply. Nowak et al. argue that inclusive fitness theory has been of little value in explaining the natural world, and that it has led to negligible progress in explaining the evolution of eusociality. However, we believe that their arguments are based upon a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and a misrepresentation of the empirical literature. We will focus our comments on three general issues.
Leaf-cutter ants are one of the most important herbivorous insects in the Neotropics, harvesting vast quantities of fresh leaf material. The ants use leaves to cultivate a fungus that serves as the colonys primary food source. This obligate ant-fungus mutualism is one of the few occurrences of farming by non-humans and likely facilitated the formation of their massive colonies. Mature leaf-cutter ant colonies contain millions of workers ranging in size from small garden tenders to large soldiers, resulting in one of the most complex polymorphic caste systems within ants. To begin uncovering the genomic underpinnings of this system, we sequenced the genome of Atta cephalotes using 454 pyrosequencing. One prediction from this ants lifestyle is that it has undergone genetic modifications that reflect its obligate dependence on the fungus for nutrients. Analysis of this genome sequence is consistent with this hypothesis, as we find evidence for reductions in genes related to nutrient acquisition. These include extensive reductions in serine proteases (which are likely unnecessary because proteolysis is not a primary mechanism used to process nutrients obtained from the fungus), a loss of genes involved in arginine biosynthesis (suggesting that this amino acid is obtained from the fungus), and the absence of a hexamerin (which sequesters amino acids during larval development in other insects). Following recent reports of genome sequences from other insects that engage in symbioses with beneficial microbes, the A. cephalotes genome provides new insights into the symbiotic lifestyle of this ant and advances our understanding of host-microbe symbioses.
Eusocial species exhibit pronounced division of labor, most notably between reproductive and non-reproductive castes, but also within non-reproductive castes via morphological specialization and temporal polyethism. For species with distinct worker and queen castes, age-related differences in behavior among workers (e.g. within-nest tasks versus foraging) appear to result from physiological changes such as decreased lipid content. However, we know little about how labor is divided among individuals in species that lack a distinct queen caste. In this study, we investigated how fat storage varied among individuals in a species of ant (Dinoponera australis) that lacks a distinct queen caste and in which all individuals are morphologically similar and capable of reproduction (totipotent at birth). We distinguish between two hypotheses, 1) all individuals are physiologically similar, consistent with the possibility that any non-reproductive may eventually become reproductive, and 2) non-reproductive individuals vary in stored fat, similar to highly eusocial species, where depletion is associated with foraging and non-reproductives have lower lipid stores than reproducing individuals. Our data support the latter hypothesis. Location in the nest, the probability of foraging, and foraging effort, were all associated with decreased fat storage.
We report the draft genome sequence of the red harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus. The genome was sequenced using 454 pyrosequencing, and the current assembly and annotation were completed in less than 1 y. Analyses of conserved gene groups (more than 1,200 manually annotated genes to date) suggest a high-quality assembly and annotation comparable to recently sequenced insect genomes using Sanger sequencing. The red harvester ant is a model for studying reproductive division of labor, phenotypic plasticity, and sociogenomics. Although the genome of P. barbatus is similar to other sequenced hymenopterans (Apis mellifera and Nasonia vitripennis) in GC content and compositional organization, and possesses a complete CpG methylation toolkit, its predicted genomic CpG content differs markedly from the other hymenopterans. Gene networks involved in generating key differences between the queen and worker castes (e.g., wings and ovaries) show signatures of increased methylation and suggest that ants and bees may have independently co-opted the same gene regulatory mechanisms for reproductive division of labor. Gene family expansions (e.g., 344 functional odorant receptors) and pseudogene accumulation in chemoreception and P450 genes compared with A. mellifera and N. vitripennis are consistent with major life-history changes during the adaptive radiation of Pogonomyrmex spp., perhaps in parallel with the development of the North American deserts.
Ants are some of the most abundant and familiar animals on Earth, and they play vital roles in most terrestrial ecosystems. Although all ants are eusocial, and display a variety of complex and fascinating behaviors, few genomic resources exist for them. Here, we report the draft genome sequence of a particularly widespread and well-studied species, the invasive Argentine ant (Linepithema humile), which was accomplished using a combination of 454 (Roche) and Illumina sequencing and community-based funding rather than federal grant support. Manual annotation of >1,000 genes from a variety of different gene families and functional classes reveals unique features of the Argentine ants biology, as well as similarities to Apis mellifera and Nasonia vitripennis. Distinctive features of the Argentine ant genome include remarkable expansions of gustatory (116 genes) and odorant receptors (367 genes), an abundance of cytochrome P450 genes (>110), lineage-specific expansions of yellow/major royal jelly proteins and desaturases, and complete CpG DNA methylation and RNAi toolkits. The Argentine ant genome contains fewer immune genes than Drosophila and Tribolium, which may reflect the prominent role played by behavioral and chemical suppression of pathogens. Analysis of the ratio of observed to expected CpG nucleotides for genes in the reproductive development and apoptosis pathways suggests higher levels of methylation than in the genome overall. The resources provided by this genome sequence will offer an abundance of tools for researchers seeking to illuminate the fascinating biology of this emerging model organism.
Social insects rank among the most abundant and influential terrestrial organisms. The key to their success is their ability to form tightly knit social groups that perform work cooperatively, and effectively exclude non-members from the colony. An extensive body of research, both empirical and theoretical, has explored how optimal acceptance thresholds could evolve in individuals, driven by the twin costs of inappropriately rejecting true nestmates and erroneously accepting individuals from foreign colonies. Here, in contrast, we use agent-based modeling to show that strong nestmate recognition by individuals is often unnecessary. Instead, highly effective nestmate recognition can arise as a colony-level property from a collective of individually poor recognizers. Essentially, although an intruder can get by one defender when their odor cues are similar, it is nearly impossible to get past many defenders if there is the slightest difference in cues. The results of our models match observed rejection rates in studies of ants, wasps, and bees. We also show that previous research in support of the optimal threshold theory approach to the problem of nestmate recognition can be alternatively viewed as evidence in favor of the collective formation of a selectively permeable barrier that allows in nestmates (at a significant cost) while rejecting non-nestmates. Finally, this work shows that nestmate recognition has a stronger task allocation component than previously thought, as colonies can nearly always achieve perfect nestmate recognition if it is cost effective for them to do so at the colony level. ELECTRONIC SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL: The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00265-010-1094-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Male orchid bees collect volatiles, from both floral and non-floral sources, that they expose as pheromone analogues (perfumes) during courtship display. The chemical profile of these perfumes, which includes terpenes and aromatic compounds, is both species-specific and divergent among closely related lineages. Thus, fragrance composition is thought to play an important role in prezygotic reproductive isolation in euglossine bees. However, because orchid bees acquire fragrances entirely from exogenous sources, the chemical composition of male perfumes is prone to variation due to environmental heterogeneity across habitats. We used Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) to characterize the perfumes of 114 individuals of the green orchid bee (Euglossa aff. viridissima) sampled from five native populations in Mesoamerica and two naturalized populations in the southeastern United States. We recorded a total of 292 fragrance compounds from hind-leg extracts, and found that overall perfume composition was different for each population. We detected a pronounced chemical dissimilarity between native (Mesoamerica) and naturalized (U.S.) populations that was driven both by proportional differences of common compounds as well as the presence of a few chemicals unique to each population group. Despite these differences, our data also revealed remarkable qualitative consistency in the presence of several major fragrance compounds across distant populations from dissimilar habitats. In addition, we demonstrate that naturalized bees are attracted to and collect large quantities of triclopyr 2-butoxyethyl ester, the active ingredient of several commercially available herbicides. By comparing incidence values and consistency indices across populations, we identify putative functional compounds that may play an important role in courtship signaling in this species of orchid bee.
Social insects maintain colony cohesion by recognizing and, if necessary, discriminating against conspecifics that are not part of the colony. This recognition ability is encoded by a complex mixture of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs), although it is largely unclear how social insects interpret such a multifaceted signal. CHC profiles often contain several series of homologous hydrocarbons, possessing the same methyl branch position but differing in chain length (e.g., 15-methyl-pentatriacontane, 15-methyl-heptatriacontane, 15-methyl-nonatriacontane). Recent studies have revealed that within species these homologs can occur in correlated concentrations. In such cases, single compounds may convey the same information as the homologs. In this study, we used behavioral bioassays to explore how social insects perceive and interpret different hydrocarbons. We tested the aggressive response of Argentine ants, Linepithema humile, toward nest-mate CHC profiles that were augmented with one of eight synthetic hydrocarbons that differed in branch position, chain length, or both. We found that Argentine ants showed similar levels of aggression toward nest-mate CHC profiles augmented with compounds that had the same branch position but differed in chain length. Conversely, Argentine ants displayed different levels of aggression toward nest-mate CHC profiles augmented with compounds that had different branch positions but the same chain length. While this was true in almost all cases, one CHC we tested elicited a greater aggressive response than its homologs. Interestingly, this was the only compound that did not occur naturally in correlated concentrations with its homologs in CHC profiles. Combined, these data suggest that CHCs of a homologous series elicit the same aggressive response because they convey the same information, rather than Argentine ants being unable to discriminate between different homologs. This study contributes to our understanding of the chemical basis of nestmate recognition by showing that, similar to spoken language, the chemical language of social insects contains "synonyms," chemicals that differ in structure, but not meaning.
All animals interact with conspecifics during their life, and nearly all also display some form of aggression. An enduring challenge, however, is to understand how the experiences of an individual animal influence its later behaviours. Several studies have shown that prior winning experience increases the probability of initiating fights in later encounters. Using behavioural assays in the laboratory, we provide evidence that, in Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), the mere exposure to an opponent, without the encounter escalating to a fight, also increases the probability that it will display aggression in later encounters. Argentine ant workers differ in their propensity to attack non-colonymates, with some ants repeatedly aggressive and others consistently more docile. Although 78 per cent of the workers were consistent in their behaviour from one encounter to the next, workers that did change their behaviour after an encounter with a non-colonymate more often changed from non-aggressive to aggressive, rather than the reverse. Surprisingly, a single encounter with a non-colonymate increased a workers propensity to fight in encounters up to a week later. An encounter with a non-colonymate also increased the probability that a worker would attack ants from a colony that it had not previously encountered. Thus, these interactions lowered the overall aggression threshold, rather than stimulating a specific aggressive response to a particular foreign colony. Finally, our data suggest that aggression towards non-colonymates increases with age.
Ants form highly social and cooperative colonies that compete, and often fight, against other such colonies, both intra- and interspecifically. Some invasive ants take sociality to an extreme, forming geographically massive supercolonies across thousands of kilometres. The success of social insects generally, as well as invasive ants in particular, stems from the sophisticated mechanisms used to accurately and precisely distinguish colonymates from non-colonymates. Surprisingly, however, the specific chemicals used for this recognition are virtually undescribed.
The Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) is recognized as one of the worlds most damaging invasive species. One reason for the ecological dominance of introduced Argentine ant populations is their ability to dominate food and habitat resources through the rapid mobilization and recruitment of thousands of workers. More than 30 years ago, studies showed that (Z)-9-hexadecenal strongly attracted Argentine ant workers in a multi-choice olfactometer, suggesting that (Z)-9-hexadecenal might be the trail pheromone, or a component of a trail pheromone mixture. Since then, numerous studies have considered (Z)-9-hexadecenal as the key component of the Argentine ant trails. Here, we report the first chemical analyses of the trails laid by living Argentine ants and find that (Z)-9-hexadecenal is not present in a detectible quantity. Instead, two iridoids, dolichodial and iridomyrmecin, appear to be the primary chemical constituents of the trails. Laboratory choice tests confirmed that Argentine ants were attracted to artificial trails comprised of these two chemicals significantly more often than control trails. Although (Z)-9-hexadecenal was not detected in natural trails, supplementation of artificial dolichodial+iridomyrmecin trails with an extremely low concentraion of (Z)-9-hexadecenal did increase the efficacy of the trail-following behavior. In stark contrast with previous dogma, our study suggests that dolichodial and iridomyrmecin are major components of the Argentine ant trail pheromone. (Z)-9-hexadecenal may act in an additive manner with these iridoids, but it does not occur in detectable quantities in Argentine ant recruitment trails.
Here, we describe a novel method for the extraction of insect cuticular hydrocarbons using silica gel, herein referred to as "silica-rubbing". This method permits the selective sampling of external hydrocarbons from insect cuticle surfaces for subsequent analysis using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). The cuticular hydrocarbons are first adsorbed to silica gel particles by rubbing the cuticle of insect specimens with the materials, and then are subsequently eluted using organic solvents. We compared the cuticular hydrocarbon profiles that resulted from extractions using silica-rubbing and solvent-soaking methods in four ant and one bee species: Linepithema humile, Azteca instabilis, Camponotus floridanus, Pogonomyrmex barbatus (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), and Euglossa dilemma (Hymenoptera: Apidae). We also compared the hydrocarbon profiles of Euglossa dilemma obtained via silica-rubbing and solid phase microextraction (SPME). Comparison of hydrocarbon profiles obtained by different extraction methods indicates that silica rubbing selectively extracts the hydrocarbons that are present on the surface of the cuticular wax layer, without extracting hydrocarbons from internal glands and tissues. Due to its surface specificity, efficiency, and low cost, this new method may be useful for studying the biology of insect cuticular hydrocarbons.
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