A genetic toolkit underlying the queen phenotype in termites with totipotent workers

Silu Lin, Daniel Elsner, Leon Ams, Judith Korb, Rebeca Rosengaus

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Social insect castes (e.g., queens, workers) are prime examples of phenotypic plasticity (i.e., different phenotypes arising from the same genotype). Yet, the mechanisms that give rise to highly fertile, long-lived queens versus non-reproducing, short-lived workers are not well understood. Recently, a module of co-expressed genes has been identified that characterizes queens compared to workers of the termite Cryptotermes secundus (Kalotermitidae): the Queen Central Module (QCM). We tested whether the QCM is shared in termite species, in which queens gradually develop via early larval and late larval instars, the latter functioning as totipotent workers (linear development). Similar as in C. secundus, gene expression profiles revealed an enrichment of QCM genes in Zootermopsis angusticollis queens, a species from another termite family (Archotermopsidae). The expression of these QCM genes became gradually enriched during development from early larval instars via workers to queens. Thus, our results support the hypothesis of a conserved genetic toolkit that characterizes termite queens with gradual linear development. Our data also imply a strong caste-specific tissue specificity with the QCM signal being restricted to head-prothorax tissues in termite queens. This tissue-specific expression of key aging-related genes might have facilitated the evolution of a long lifespan in termite queens.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2214
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2024

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Florentine Schaub and Karen Meusemann for assistance in handling samples and data, and the editor and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. We acknowledge support by the Baden-Württemberg High Performance Computing facilities. This research was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) with two grants to J.K. (KO1895/25-1, KO1895/28-1).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024, The Author(s).


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