Early behavioral and molecular events leading to caste switching in the ant Harpegnathos

Genes Dev. 2021 Mar 1;35(5-6):410-424. doi: 10.1101/gad.343699.120. Epub 2021 Feb 18.

Abstract

Ant societies show a division of labor in which a queen is in charge of reproduction while nonreproductive workers maintain the colony. In Harpegnathos saltator, workers retain reproductive ability, inhibited by the queen pheromones. Following the queen loss, the colony undergoes social unrest with an antennal dueling tournament. Most workers quickly abandon the tournament while a few workers continue the dueling for months and become gamergates (pseudoqueens). However, the temporal dynamics of the social behavior and molecular mechanisms underlining the caste transition and social dominance remain unclear. By tracking behaviors, we show that the gamergate fate is accurately determined 3 d after initiation of the tournament. To identify genetic factors responsible for this commitment, we compared transcriptomes of different tissues between dueling and nondueling workers. We found that juvenile hormone is globally repressed, whereas ecdysone biosynthesis in the ovary is increased in gamergates. We show that molecular changes in the brain serve as earliest caste predictors compared with other tissues. Thus, behavioral and molecular data indicate that despite the prolonged social upheaval, the gamergate fate is rapidly established, suggesting a robust re-establishment of social structure.

Keywords: antennal dueling; caste transition; juvenile hormone; social behavior; social insect.