Population Genomics of Eusocial Insects: The Costs of a Vertebrate-Like Effective Population Size

J Evol Biol. 2014 Mar;27(3):593-603. doi: 10.1111/jeb.12331. Epub 2014 Feb 7.


The evolution of reproductive division of labour and social life in social insects has lead to the emergence of several life-history traits and adaptations typical of larger organisms: social insect colonies can reach masses of several kilograms, they start reproducing only when they are several years old, and can live for decades. These features and the monopolization of reproduction by only one or few individuals in a colony should affect molecular evolution by reducing the effective population size. We tested this prediction by analysing genome-wide patterns of coding sequence polymorphism and divergence in eusocial vs. noneusocial insects based on newly generated RNA-seq data. We report very low amounts of genetic polymorphism and an elevated ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous changes – a marker of the effective population size – in four distinct species of eusocial insects, which were more similar to vertebrates than to solitary insects regarding molecular evolutionary processes. Moreover, the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous substitutions was positively correlated with the level of social complexity across ant species. These results are fully consistent with the hypothesis of a reduced effective population size and an increased genetic load in eusocial insects, indicating that the evolution of social life has important consequences at both the genomic and population levels.

Keywords: genomics; insects; life-history evolution; molecular evolution; population genetics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genomics*
  • Insecta / classification
  • Insecta / genetics*
  • Phylogeny
  • Population Density*
  • Transcriptome