Thursday, November 08, 2007

Who's the queen? Ask the genes

Is the title of a piece by me in the current issue of Science looking at genetic caste determination in social insects (mostly ants, of which mostly harvester ants, with the occasional termite).

Here's the introduction:

In 1712, the English scholar Joseph Warder dedicated his treatise, The True Amazons: Or, The Monarchy of Bees, to Queen Anne, citing the caste divisions of the hive--the queen built for breeding and the workers tending her and her brood, foraging, and dying to defend their home--as evidence that nature adored royalty. But much of what entomologists have learned since then has made the lives of bees and other social insects seem closer to the American dream: Given the right nurturing--a diet of royal jelly in honeybees, or being reared at a certain temperature in some ants--any female grub in a beehive or in an ant's nest can grow up to be queen.

At least this nurture-over-nature paradigm was the prevailing wisdom, backed by theory that argued that any gene that required a developing insect to become a sterile worker would be committing evolutionary suicide. But a few years ago, social-insect research was rocked by the discovery that in some ant species, workers and queens are determined by their genes--in other words, born, not made.

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