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Keywords:

  • evolution;
  • pleiotropy;
  • positive selection;
  • social behaviour;
  • vitellogenin

Abstract

The vitellogenin egg yolk precursor protein represents a well-studied case of social pleiotropy in the model organism Apis mellifera. Vitellogenin is associated with fecundity in queens and plays a major role in controlling division of labour in workers, thereby affecting both individual and colony-level fitness. We studied the molecular evolution of vitellogenin and seven other genes sequenced in a large population panel of Apis mellifera and several closely related species to investigate the role of social pleiotropy on adaptive protein evolution. We found a significant excess of nonsynonymous fixed differences between A. mellifera, A. cerana and A. florea relative to synonymous sites indicating high rates of adaptive evolution at vitellogenin. Indeed, 88% of amino acid changes were fixed by selection in some portions of the gene. Further, vitellogenin exhibited hallmark signatures of selective sweeps in A. mellifera, including a significant skew in the allele frequency spectrum, extreme levels of genetic differentiation and linkage disequilibrium. Finally, replacement polymorphisms in vitellogenin were significantly enriched in parts of the protein involved in binding lipid, establishing a link between the gene’s structure, function and effects on fitness. Our case study provides unequivocal evidence of historical and ongoing bouts of adaptive evolution acting on a key socially pleiotropic gene in the honey bee.