Molecular biology and evolution

The scent of royalty: a p450 gene signals reproductive status in a social insect.

PMID 25053804


Cooperation requires communication; this applies to animals and humans alike. The main communication means differ between taxa and social insects (ants, termites, and some bees and wasps) lack the cognitive abilities of most social vertebrates. Central to the regulation of the reproductive harmony in insect societies is the production of a royalty scent which signals the fertility status of the reproducing queen to the nonreproducing workers. Here, we revealed a central genetic component underlying this hallmark of insect societies in the termite Cryptotermes secundus. Communication between queens and workers relied upon the expression of a gene, Neofem4, which belongs to the cytochrome P450 genes. We inhibited Neofem4 in queens by RNA interference. This resulted in the loss of the royalty scent in queens and the workers behaved as though the queen were absent. The queen's behavior was not generally affected by silencing Neofem4. This suggests that the lack of the royalty scent lead to workers not recognizing her anymore as queen. P450 genes are known to be involved in the production of chemical signals in cockroaches and their expression has been linked to a major fertility regulator, juvenile hormone. This makes P450 genes, both a suitable and available evolutionary substrate in the face of natural selection for production of a queen substance. Our data suggest that in an organism without elaborate cognitive abilities communication has been achieved by the exploitation of a central gene that links the fertility network with the chemical communication pathway. As termites and social Hymenoptera seem to share the same class of compounds in signaling fertility, this role of P450 genes might be more widespread across social insects.