Research highlight

Genetics: Termite genome reveals genetic basis for social organisation

Nature Communications

May 21, 2014

The whole, sequenced genome of the dampwood termite is reported this week in Nature Communications. The study highlights genes that may have influenced the development of complex social structures in termite populations and provides insight into how these genes have evolved in termites and closely related species.

Termites are characterised by social societies where a small group of individuals reproduce, while the large majority are tasked with foraging, defence and brood care. This type of social organisation is known as eusociality and is observed in both Hymenoptera (such as ants, bees, and wasps) and termites. To understand the genetic basis of eusociality, Jurgen Liebig and colleagues sequenced the genome of the termite, Zootermopsis nevadensis, and compared their data with previous studies focused on eusocial Hymenoptera.

The study shows that while genes involved in sperm production and odour detection have evolved differently in termites and Hymenoptera, there are similarities in the number and expression of genes that are involved in immunity, reproduction and endocrinology, which are all important for maintaining a eusocial structure. This work provides insights into the biological mechanisms underlying social organisation in termites and related species, and provides a valuable resource for future studies of insect evolution.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms4636

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