The Wing-Patterning Network in the Wingless Castes of Myrmicine and Formicine Ant Species Is a Mix of Evolutionarily Labile and Non-Labile Genes


Correspondence to: Ehab Abouheif, 1205 Avenue Docteur Penfield, Room N3/6, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1B1. E-mail:


Wing polyphenism in ants is the ability of a single genome to produce winged or wingless castes in a colony in response to environmental cues. Although wing polyphenism is a universal and homologous feature of ants, the gene network underlying wing polyphenism is conserved in the winged castes, but is labile in the wingless castes, that is, the network is interrupted at different points in the wingless castes of different ant species. Because the expression of all genes sampled so far in this network in the wingless castes is evolutionarily labile across species, an important question is whether all “interruption points” in the network are evolutionarily labile or are there interruption points that are evolutionarily non-labile. Here we show that in the wingless castes, the expression of the gene brinker (brk), which mediates growth, patterning, and apoptosis in the Drosophila wing disc, is non-labile; it is absent in vestigial wing discs of four ants species. In contrast, the expression of engrailed (en), a gene upstream of brk is labile; it is present in some species but absent in others. In the winged castes, both brk and en expression are conserved relative to their expression in Drosophila wing discs. The differential lability of genes in the network in wingless castes may be a general feature of networks underlying polyphenic traits. This raises the possibility that some genes, like brk, may be under stabilizing selection while most others, like en, may be evolving via directional selection or neutral drift. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 320B:74–83, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.