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PLoS Biol. 2007 Mar;5(3):e62.

The gene vitellogenin has multiple coordinating effects on social organization.

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Department of Entomology, University of California Davis, Davis, California, United States of America.


Temporal division of labor and foraging specialization are key characteristics of honeybee social organization. Worker honeybees (Apis mellifera) initiate foraging for food around their third week of life and often specialize in collecting pollen or nectar before they die. Variation in these fundamental social traits correlates with variation in worker reproductive physiology. However, the genetic and hormonal mechanisms that mediate the control of social organization are not understood and remain a central question in social insect biology. Here we demonstrate that a yolk precursor gene, vitellogenin, affects a complex suite of social traits. Vitellogenin is a major reproductive protein in insects in general and a proposed endocrine factor in honeybees. We show by use of RNA interference (RNAi) that vitellogenin gene activity paces onset of foraging behavior, primes bees for specialized foraging tasks, and influences worker longevity. These findings support the view that the worker specializations that characterize hymenopteran sociality evolved through co-option of reproductive regulatory pathways. Further, they demonstrate for the first time how coordinated control of multiple social life-history traits can originate via the pleiotropic effects of a single gene that affects multiple physiological processes.

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