The evolution of sterile helper castes in social insects implies selection on genes that underlie variation in this nonreproductive phenotype. These focal genes confer no direct fitness and are presumed to evolve through indirect fitness effects on the helper's reproducing relatives. This separation of a gene's phenotypic effect on one caste and its fitness effect on another suggests that genes for this and other forms of reproductive altruism are buffered from selection and will thus evolve closer to the neutral rate than genes directly selected for selfish reproduction. We test this hypothesis by comparing the strength of selection at loci associated in their expression with reproductive versus sterile castes in termites. Specifically, we gather caste-biased gene expression data from four termite transcriptomes and measure the global dN/dS ratio across gene sets and phylogenetic lineages. We find that the majority of examined orthologous gene groups show patterns of nucleotide substitution that are consistent with strong purifying selection and display little evidence for distinct signatures of direct versus indirect selection in reproductive and sterile castes. For one particular species (Reticulitermes flavipes), the strength of purifying selection is relaxed in a reproductive nymph-biased gene set, which opposes the nearly neutral idea. In other species, the synonymous rate (dS) alone was often found to be the highest in the sterile worker caste, suggesting a more subtle signature of indirect selection or an altogether different relationship between caste-biased expression and rates of molecular evolution.
Keywords: insects; molecular evolution; natural selection.
© 2020 European Society For Evolutionary Biology. Journal of Evolutionary Biology © 2020 European Society For Evolutionary Biology.