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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Apr 14;106(15):6351-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0809463106. Epub 2009 Mar 30.

Molecular basis for changes in behavioral state in ant social behaviors.

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Department of Biology, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada L5L 1C6.


A hallmark of behavior is that animals respond to environmental change by switching from one behavioral state to another. However, information on the molecular underpinnings of these behavioral shifts and how they are mediated by the environment is lacking. The ant Pheidole pallidula with its morphologically and behaviorally distinct major and minor workers is an ideal system to investigate behavioral shifts. The physically larger majors are predisposed to defend the ant nest, whereas the smaller minors are the foragers. Despite this predisposition, majors are able to shift to foraging according to the needs of the colony. We show that the ant foraging (ppfor) gene, which encodes a cGMP-dependent protein kinase (PKG), mediates this shift. Majors have higher brain PKG activities than minors, and the spatial distribution of the PPFOR protein differs in these workers. Specifically, majors express the PPFOR protein in 5 cells in the anterior face of the ant brain, whereas minors do not. Environmental manipulations show that PKG is lower in the presence of a foraging stimulus and higher when defense is required. Finally, pharmacological activation of PKG increases defense and reduces foraging behavior. Thus, PKG signaling plays a critical role in P. pallidula behavioral shifts.

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