Task-specific expression of the foraging gene in harvester ants


Krista K. Ingram, Fax: 650-724-7073; E-mail: kingram@ants.stanford.edu


In social insects, groups of workers perform various tasks such as brood care and foraging. Transitions in workers from one task to another are important in the organization and ecological success of colonies. Regulation of genetic pathways can lead to plasticity in social insect task behaviour. The colony organization of advanced eusocial insects evolved independently in ants, bees, and wasps and it is not known whether the genetic mechanisms that influence behavioural plasticity are conserved across species. Here we show that a gene associated with foraging behaviour is conserved across social insect species, but the expression patterns of this gene are not. We cloned the red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) ortholog (Pbfor) to foraging, one of few genes implicated in social organization, and found that foraging behaviour in harvester ants is associated with the expression of this gene; young (callow) worker brains have significantly higher levels of Pbfor mRNA than foragers. Levels of Pbfor mRNA in other worker task groups vary among harvester ant colonies. However, foragers always have the lowest expression levels compared to other task groups. The association between foraging behaviour and the foraging gene is conserved across social insects but ants and bees have an inverse relationship between foraging expression and behaviour.