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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Jan 7;273(1582):19-26.

Differential gene expression and phenotypic plasticity in behavioural castes of the primitively eusocial wasp, Polistes canadensis.

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  • 1Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado 2072, Balboa, Ancon, Republic of Panama.


Understanding how a single genome can produce a variety of different phenotypes is of fundamental importance in evolutionary and developmental biology. One of the most striking examples of phenotypic plasticity is the female caste system found in eusocial insects, where variation in reproductive (queens) and non-reproductive (workers) phenotypes results in a broad spectrum of caste types, ranging from behavioural through to morphological castes. Recent advances in genomic techniques allow novel comparisons on the nature of caste phenotypes to be made at the level of the genes in organisms for which there is little genome information, facilitating new approaches in studying social evolution and behaviour. Using the paper wasp Polistes canadensis as a model system, we investigated for the first time how behavioural castes in primitively eusocial insect societies are associated with differential expression of shared genes. We found that queens and newly emerged females express gene expression patterns that are distinct from each other whilst workers generally expressed intermediate patterns, as predicted by Polistes biology. We compared caste-associated genes in P. canadensis with those expressed in adult queens and workers of more advanced eusocial societies, which represent four independent origins of eusociality. Nine genes were conserved across the four taxa, although their patterns of expression and putative functions varied. Thus, we identify several genes that are putatively of evolutionary importance in the molecular biology that underlies a number of caste systems of independent evolutionary origin.

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