The making of a queen: TOR pathway is a key player in diphenic caste development

PLoS One. 2007 Jun 6;2(6):e509. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000509.


Background: Honey bees (Apis mellifera) provide a principal example of diphenic development. Excess feeding of female larvae results in queens (large reproductives). Moderate diet yields workers (small helpers). The signaling pathway that links provisioning to female developmental fate is not understood, yet we reasoned that it could include TOR (target of rapamycin), a nutrient- and energy-sensing kinase that controls organismal growth.

Methodology/principal findings: Here, the role of Apis mellifera TOR (amTOR) in caste determination is examined by rapamycin/FK506 pharmacology and RNA interference (RNAi) gene knockdown. We show that in queen-destined larvae, the TOR inhibitor rapamycin induces the development of worker characters that are blocked by the antagonist FK506. Further, queen fate is associated with elevated activity of the Apis mellifera TOR encoding gene, amTOR, and amTOR gene knockdown blocks queen fate and results in individuals with worker morphology.

Conclusions/significance: A much-studied insect dimorphism, thereby, can be governed by the TOR pathway. Our results present the first evidence for a role of TOR in diphenic development, and suggest that adoption of this ancestral nutrient-sensing cascade is one evolutionary pathway for morphological caste differentiation in social insects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Hierarchy, Social*
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / genetics
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / metabolism*
  • Larva / growth & development
  • Larva / metabolism
  • Protein-Serine-Threonine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Protein-Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics
  • Protein-Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism*
  • RNA, Small Interfering / pharmacology
  • Sirolimus / pharmacology
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases


  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Protein-Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Sirolimus