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Changes in reproductive roles are associated with changes in gene expression in fire ant queens


Yannick Wurm, Fax: +41 21 692 4165; E-mail:


In species with social hierarchies, the death of dominant individuals typically upheaves the social hierarchy and provides an opportunity for subordinate individuals to become reproductives. Such a phenomenon occurs in the monogyne form of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, where colonies typically contain a single wingless reproductive queen, thousands of workers and hundreds of winged nonreproductive virgin queens. Upon the death of the mother queen, many virgin queens shed their wings and initiate reproductive development instead of departing on a mating flight. Workers progressively execute almost all of them over the following weeks. To identify the molecular changes that occur in virgin queens as they perceive the loss of their mother queen and begin to compete for reproductive dominance, we collected virgin queens before the loss of their mother queen, 6 h after orphaning and 24 h after orphaning. Their RNA was extracted and hybridized against microarrays to examine the expression levels of approximately 10 000 genes. We identified 297 genes that were consistently differentially expressed after orphaning. These include genes that are putatively involved in the signalling and onset of reproductive development, as well as genes underlying major physiological changes in the young queens.