, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 141-148

Proximate mechanisms and evolution of caste polyphenism in social insects: From sociality to genes

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Evidence has accumulated over several decades to prove the kin selection theory of evolution of social insects, however, proximate mechanisms of social behavior, and/or caste differentiation remain obscure. Genes that regulate these mechanisms are apparently selected through kin selection, and organisms have consequently acquired sociality. Here, I will discuss several studies that were performed recently by Matsumoto Laboratory, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, in various social insects, such as termites and ants, in order to reveal the regulatory mechanisms of social behavior and the evolutionary processes of sociality. First, I will review the foraging behavior of the black marching termite Hospitalitermes medioflavus, where well-organized task allocation among castes is apparent. This suggests that regulation of postembryonic development is important in social behavior. Next, I will summarize recent progress in identifying caste-specific gene expression in the damp-wood termite Hodotermopsis sjostedti. This constitutes the basis for molecular mechanisms of caste differentiation, and moreover, the genes identified might be good markers for social evolution. Finally, the mechanism underlying winglessness in ant workers is reviewed. Apoptotic cell death was detected at the stage of pupation in wingless worker castes. Furthermore, the areas of study recently designated as ‘sociogenomics’ and ‘ecological developmental biology’ are discussed.