One of the fundamental questions in biology is how cooperative and altruistic behaviors evolved. The majority of studies seeking to identify the genes regulating these behaviors have been performed in systems where behavioral and physiological differences are relatively fixed, such as in the honey bee. During colony founding in the monogyne (one queen per colony) social form of the fire ant Solenopsis invicta, newly-mated queens may start new colonies either individually (haplometrosis) or in groups (pleometrosis). However, only one queen (the “winner”) in pleometrotic associations survives and takes the lead of the young colony while the others (the “losers”) are executed. Thus, colony founding in fire ants provides an excellent system in which to examine the genes underpinning cooperative behavior and how the social environment shapes the expression of these genes. We developed a new whole genome microarray platform for S. invicta to characterize the gene expression patterns associated with colony founding behavior. First, we compared haplometrotic queens, pleometrotic winners and pleometrotic losers. Second, we manipulated pleometrotic couples in order to switch or maintain the social ranks of the two cofoundresses. Haplometrotic and pleometrotic queens differed in the expression of genes involved in stress response, aging, immunity, reproduction and lipid biosynthesis. Smaller sets of genes were differentially expressed between winners and losers. In the second experiment, switching social rank had a much greater impact on gene expression patterns than the initial/final rank. Expression differences for several candidate genes involved in key biological processes were confirmed using qRT-PCR. Our findings indicate that, in S. invicta, social environment plays a major role in the determination of the patterns of gene expression, while the queen's physiological state is secondary. These results highlight the powerful influence of social environment on regulation of the genomic state, physiology and ultimately, social behavior of animals.
The characterization of the genomic basis for complex behaviors is one of the major goals of biological research. The genomic state of an individual results from the interplay between its internal condition (the “nature”) and the external environment (the “nurture”), which may include the social environment. Colony founding in the fire ant Solenopsis invicta is a complex process that serves as a useful model for investigating how the interplay between genes and social environment shapes social behavior. Unrelated, newly mated S. invicta queens may start a new colony as a group, but ultimately only one queen will survive and gain full reproductive dominance. By uncovering the genetic basis for founding behavior in fire ants we therefore provide useful insights into how cooperative behavior evolved in a context that might be considered primitively eusocial, because newly mated queens in a founding association are morphologically, physiologically and genetically very similar and display no evident division of labor. Our results suggest that social environment (founding singly or in pairs, switching dominance rank vs. maintaining rank) is a much greater driver of gene expression changes than social rank itself, suggesting that social environment, and not reproductive state, is a key regulator of gene expression, physiology and ultimately, behavior.