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PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e40111. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040111. Epub 2012 Jul 25.

Hox gene expression leads to differential hind leg development between honeybee castes.

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Departamento de Genética, Faculdade de Medicina de Ribeirão Preto, Universidade de São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Brazil.


Beyond the physiological and behavioural, differences in appendage morphology between the workers and queens of Apis mellifera are pre-eminent. The hind legs of workers, which are highly specialized pollinators, deserve special attention. The hind tibia of worker has an expanded bristle-free region used for carrying pollen and propolis, the corbicula. In queens this structure is absent. Although the morphological differences are well characterized, the genetic inputs driving the development of this alternative morphology remain unknown. Leg phenotype determination takes place between the fourth and fifth larval instar and herein we show that the morphogenesis is completed at brown-eyed pupa. Using results from the hybridization of whole genome-based oligonucleotide arrays with RNA samples from hind leg imaginal discs of pre-pupal honeybees of both castes we present a list of 200 differentially expressed genes. Notably, there are castes preferentially expressed cuticular protein genes and members of the P450 family. We also provide results of qPCR analyses determining the developmental transcription profiles of eight selected genes, including abdominal-A, distal-less and ultrabithorax (Ubx), whose roles in leg development have been previously demonstrated in other insect models. Ubx expression in workers hind leg is approximately 25 times higher than in queens. Finally, immunohistochemistry assays show that Ubx localization during hind leg development resembles the bristles localization in the tibia/basitarsus of the adult legs in both castes. Our data strongly indicate that the development of the hind legs diphenism characteristic of this corbiculate species is driven by a set of caste-preferentially expressed genes, such as those encoding cuticular protein genes, P450 and Hox proteins, in response to the naturally different diets offered to honeybees during the larval period.

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