Recent Advances in Behavioral (Epi)Genetics in Eusocial Insects

Annu Rev Genet. 2018 Nov 23;52:489-510. doi: 10.1146/annurev-genet-120116-024456. Epub 2018 Sep 12.


Eusocial insects live in societies in which distinct family members serve specific roles in maintaining the colony and advancing the reproductive ability of a few select individuals. Given the genetic similarity of all colony members, the diversity of morphologies and behaviors is surprising. Social communication relies on pheromones and olfaction, as shown by mutants of orco, the universal odorant receptor coreceptor, and through electrophysiological analysis of neuronal responses to pheromones. Additionally, neurohormonal factors and epigenetic regulators play a key role in caste-specific behavior, such as foraging and caste switching. These studies start to allow an understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying social behavior and provide a technological foundation for future studies of eusocial insects. In this review, we highlight recent findings in eusocial insects that advance our understanding of genetic and epigenetic regulations of social behavior and provide perspectives on future studies using cutting-edge technologies.

Keywords: caste development; critical periods; epigenetics; neuroplasticity; odorant receptor; social behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology
  • Insecta / genetics*
  • Insecta / physiology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Pheromones / genetics
  • Receptors, Odorant / genetics
  • Smell / genetics
  • Social Behavior*


  • Pheromones
  • Receptors, Odorant