- Open Access
Expression profiles during honeybee caste determination
© GenomeBiology.com 2000
- Received: 6 October 2000
- Accepted: 9 November 2000
- Published: 20 December 2000
Depending on their larval environment, female honeybees develop into either queens or workers. As in other polyphenisms, this developmental switch depends not on genomic differences between queens and workers but on the differential expression of entire suites of genes involved with larval fate. As such, this and other polyphenic systems can provide a novel tool for understanding how genomes and environmental conditions interact to produce different developmental trajectories. Here we use gene-expression profiles during honeybee caste determination to present the first genomic view of polyphenic development.
Larvae raised as queens or workers differed greatly in their gene-expression patterns. Workers remained more faithful than queens to the expression profiles of younger, bipotential, larvae. Queens appeared to both downregulate many of the genes expressed by bipotential larvae and turn on a distinct set of caste-related genes. Queens overexpressed several metabolic enzymes, workers showed increased expression of a member of the cytochrome P450 family, hexameric storage proteins and dihydrodiol dehydrogenase, and young larvae overexpressed two putative heat-shock proteins (70 and 90 kDa), and several proteins related to RNA processing and translation.
Large differences in gene expression between queens and workers indicate that social insect castes have faced strong directional selection pressures. Overexpression of metabolic enzymes by queen-destined larvae appears to reflect the enhanced growth rate of queens during late larval development. Many of the differently expressed genes we identified have been tied to metabolic rates and cellular responses to hormones, a result consistent with known physiological differences between queen and worker larvae.
- Young Larva
- Unique Clone
- Work Larva
- Queen Larva
- CYP4 Subfamily
Social insect colonies are defined in part by reproductive division of labor, whereby some colony members are considerably more fecund than others. The reproductive roles of colony members often are fixed by events that occur during larval development. An understanding of the mechanisms behind role, or caste, determination allows tests of several models for the evolution and maintenance of social life [1,2,3]. Female honeybees (Apis mellifera) are fated to become queens or workers during the first few days of larval development. Despite detailed knowledge of the physiological differences between workers and queens during development , relatively little is known of the underlying genetic machinery that drives these changes. Although differences in honeybee larval transcription had been inferred , caste-biased genes were identified only recently [3,6,7]. On the basis of inferred homology with known genes , these genes appear to be involved with diverse metabolic, nutritional and signaling processes during development.
Gene-expression arrays provide a powerful new tool to clarify the timing and nature of genetic events during insect development . Here we use this technique to explore the genetic mechanisms of divergence between social insect castes. We contrast the gene-expression patterns of worker-destined and queen-destined larvae and then compare both castes with younger, bipotential, individuals. These comparisons allow tests of hypotheses concerning the evolutionary relationship between queen- or worker-destined developmental pathways in social insects (see, for example, ). More generally, changes in gene expression during insect caste determination can shed light on diverse developmental events such as differences in hormonal titers, the development or apoptosis of reproductive tissues, and developmental rates and metabolism . We present evidence for widespread divergence in gene expression between workers and queens, and identify particular genes that appear to be integral to the production of these distinct adult phenotypes.
Normalized gene expression by functional group and larval class
Number of clones
Young larvae mean (SE)
Worker larvae mean (SE)
Queen larvae mean (SE)
Unknown or other
Genes related to RNA processing and translation showed higher rates of expression in young larvae (first and second instars) than in older larvae (Table 1). RNA helicase was strongly expressed by young larvae, as was an RNA-binding protein and translation elongation factor 2. Interestingly, two heat-shock proteins also were overexpressed in the youngest larvae. One shows a significant match to the Hsp70 family, whereas the second matches Hsp90. Heat-shock proteins are named for their ubiquitous presence following hyperthermy and other stresses , but members of this group have a more general role as molecular chaperones, and are involved in the assembly of newly translated proteins . Hsp90 appears to be involved in the assembly of steroid hormone receptors . Expression analyses on a more precise time scale, and at the level of specific tissues, should help determine whether the covariance between the expression of Hsps and agents involved in RNA processing reflects a joint role in producing essential proteins during early larval development. Queen-destined and worker-destined larvae showed broadly similar expression profiles late in the second instar, hours after queens and workers receive differential treatment in colonies. This suggests that most gene-expression changes associated with the caste programs occur after this point. Nevertheless, several genes were expressed differently at this early stage, including dihydrodiol dehydrogenase, which was expressed in lower levels by second-instar queens (normalized x = -0.067, SE = 0.025) than by either bipotential larvae (x = -0.026, SE = 0.009) or second-instar workers (x = 0.001, SE = 0.007). Dihydrodiol dehydrogenase has a general role in deactivating steroid hormones in mammals . Consequently, it is intriguing that higher levels of expression of this enzyme by workers coincide with a period of decreased steroid titers in workers relative to queens. A putative lipid-binding protein also showed higher expression in workers than in queens from the second instar onward.
Queens overexpressed two genes directly linked to increased metabolic rates - the nuclear-encoded mitochondrial protein ATP synthase and the mitochondrial gene cytochrome oxidase I. Higher expression of two mitochondrial genes was reported previously , and was suggested to be an indicator of higher metabolic respiration in queen versus worker larvae. Interestingly, increased expression of these genes by queen larvae in our study was not apparent until the fifth instar in the bees we followed, a fact consistent with a role in caste-biased respiration. During the final instar, queens show the most extreme differences in growth rates, relative to workers. Queens also showed relatively high expression of a set of structural (cuticular) proteins, a histone acetyltransferase bromodomain, an ortholog to the Smcx/y mammalian sex-differentiation gene, and pyruvate dehydrogenase (Figures 1,2).
As well as providing expression information for specific genes, the analyses presented here provide the first look at genome-level processes during the divergence of two social insect castes. Caste- and age-based biases in gene expression were indicated by a strong tendency for independent samples to group together in the clustering analyses (Figure 1). The castes differed widely in gene-expression patterns, supporting the idea that social insect castes have faced strong directional selection pressures . Workers remained more faithful than queens to the expression profiles of younger, bipotential, larvae. In contrast, queens appeared simultaneously to downregulate many of the genes expressed by bipotential larvae and turn on a distinct set of caste-related genes. This difference could reflect, in part, a common impact of regulatory hormones on gene expression in young larvae and in larvae destined to become workers. Juvenile hormone and ecdysteroids are both much reduced in these larvae, relative to queen-destined larvae , and ecdysteroids have been shown to downregulate several genes expressed in the ovaries of developing workers .
Honeybees and other social insects provide a novel opportunity to measure the impacts of insect hormones on gene expression . Specifically, hormone levels in different social insect castes are partially decoupled from molting and metamorphosis . This fact can be used to retrieve expression differences caused by hormones per se from differences caused by other developmental events such as metamorphosis . The identification of common transcriptional regulators for these genes, as shown in Drosophila embryos , would point to hormonal control mechanisms and unite caste-related genes with genes involved in insect development more generally.
To generate the genetic arrays, cDNA clones were isolated from four subtractive libraries derived from worker- and queen-destined larvae collected in the third and fourth instars. We chose 144 clones from worker-biased libraries and 144 clones from queen-biased libraries. These clones were amplified by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) using endogenous adaptor primers (primers Nest1 and Nest2r, described in ), then separated and verified by agarose gel electrophoresis. After being denatured for 5 min at 95°C in a final molarity 0.2 M NaOH, approximately 5 µg DNA from each amplified clone was fixed onto nylon membranes (Hybond N+, Amersham) using a 5 µl slot-pin library replicator (V and P Scientific) followed by UV irradiation. Each of 96 quadrants in a 384-cell printing contained three samples and a negative control. An aliquot of each cDNA clone was purified then sequenced using fluorescent-dye labeling and an ABI Prism 373 DNA analysis machine (Applied Biosystems).
Embryos, along with worker- and queen-destined larvae, were harvested from several colonies of A. mellifera ligustica of the same genetic stock maintained in the Bee Research Lab apiary. Two groups of 50 late-stage (2-day-old) embryos were harvested from standard (worker) cells and immediately frozen at -80°C. Four groups of 20 bipotential larvae aged 24 h post-hatching also were pooled and frozen. Fourteen worker-destined larvae aged 48, 72, 96, and 120 h post-hatching were also collected, along with 13 queen-destined larvae from the same age groups, raised in natural queen-rearing (swarm) cells. The ages of these queen larvae were determined by wet weight and body size comparisons with larvae of known age raised in artificial queen cells. For both worker- and queen-destined larvae, ages were likely to be accurate within 8-12 h, on the basis of wet-weight comparisons with larvae of known age . Total RNA was extracted from these samples using the RNAqueous protocol (Ambion).
Labeling and hybridization
DNA probes were generated from 5 µg total RNA by reverse transcriptase synthesis (Superscript II enzyme, Life Technologies), using oligo-dT primers and biotin-labeled dUTP and dATP (in a 1:10 molar ratio to unmodified dTTP and DATP, respectively). Probes were cleaned by spin filtration, denatured, and then incubated in hybridization buffer (50% formamide, 6 × SSPE, 0.5% SDS, 5 × Denhardt's solution) with 0.1 pmol poly-(A)25 for 2 h at 42°C. Hybridization was carried out at 42°C, followed by a series of stringency washes, as in . Membranes were washed, bathed in the Avidx alkaline-phosphatase conjugate then exposed to the chemiluminescent substrate CDP-star, according to the manufacturer's instructions (Tropix, Applied Biosystems). Membranes were next exposed to autoradiographic film for between 10 min and 8 h. Each membrane was used only once, giving an independent hybridization for 2 embryo replicates, 4 bipotential larvae, 13 queen, and 13 worker larval samples.
Cloned sequences were aligned using the CLUSTALW algorithm (Omiga 2.0, Oxford Molecular) to assess sequence quality and identify multiple captures of the same sequence. Each unique clone (167 out of 288) was compared against the GenBank database using the BLAST-X and BLAST-N algorithms at the site maintained by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information . Matches showing a probability score of < 1.0 × 10-3 were treated as significant matches. Of the 167 unique clones, nine were dropped from the analyses as a result of evidence of multiple bands or inconsistent PCR amplification. Of the remaining clones, 64 showed a match to one or more sequences in GenBank and, of these, 63 could be placed into one of the gene function groups defined in  and the Gene Ontology database . All gene fragment sequences used are available, along with their BLAST search results, at the Beenome Project website , and in the NCBI dbEST database .
Scanned images of exposed films were scored using the software program Zero Dscan (Scanalytics), giving a densitometry score for each cell in the membrane's 384-cell matrix. Spreadsheet macros (Microsoft Excel) were then used to generate an average intensity value for each of 158 unique clones that consistently showed a single band in the PCR amplifications. These values were normalized as a proportion of the strongest signal on each membrane, then were further normalized and centered on unity across genes and samples . Centroid clustering was then carried out and visualized using the programs Cluster 1.0 and TreeView 1.0, respectively .
We thank D. Lopez and D. Pham for technical assistance, and A. Collins and B. Tabashnik for comments on the manuscript. G. Hoffman, J. Martin, and colleagues in the Beltsville Bee Research Lab shared insights into honeybees and queen production.
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