Differential gene expression between adult queens and workers in the ant Lasius niger
Ants and other social insects forming large societies are generally characterized by marked reproductive division of labour. Queens largely monopolize reproduction whereas workers have little reproductive potential. In addition, some social insect species show tremendous lifespan differences between the queen and worker caste. Remarkably, queens and workers are usually genotypically identical, meaning that any phenotypic differences between the two castes arise from caste-specific gene expression. Using a combination of differential display, microarrays and reverse Northern blots, we found 16 genes that were differentially expressed between adult queens and workers in the ant Lasius niger, a species with highly pronounced reproductive division of labour and a several-fold lifespan difference between queens and workers. RNA ligase mediated rapid amplification of cDNA ends (RLM-RACE) and gene walking were used to further characterize these genes. On the basis of the molecular function of their nearest homologues, three genes appear to be involved in reproductive division of labour. Another three genes, which were exclusively overexpressed in queens, are possibly involved in the maintenance and repair of the soma, a candidate mechanism for lifespan determination. In-depth functional analyses of these genes are now needed to reveal their exact role.