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Open Access Research article

The transcription factor Krüppel homolog 1 is linked to hormone mediated social organization in bees

Hagai Shpigler1, Harland M Patch23, Mira Cohen1, Yongliang Fan24, Christina M Grozinger23* and Guy Bloch1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Evolution, Systematics, and Ecology, The Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel

2 Department of Entomology and Genetics, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA

3 Department of Entomology, Center for Pollinator Research, Center for Chemical Ecology, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA

4 Syngenta Biotechnology, Incorporated; Research Triangle Park, NC, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:120  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-120

Published: 30 April 2010

Abstract

Background

Regulation of worker behavior by dominant queens or workers is a hallmark of insect societies, but the underlying molecular mechanisms and their evolutionary conservation are not well understood. Honey bee and bumble bee colonies consist of a single reproductive queen and facultatively sterile workers. The queens' influences on the workers are mediated largely via inhibition of juvenile hormone titers, which affect division of labor in honey bees and worker reproduction in bumble bees. Studies in honey bees identified a transcription factor, Krüppel-homolog 1 (Kr-h1), whose expression in worker brains is significantly downregulated in the presence of a queen or queen pheromone and higher in forager bees, making this gene an ideal candidate for examining the evolutionary conservation of socially regulated pathways in Hymenoptera.

Results

In contrast to honey bees, bumble bees foragers do not have higher Kr-h1 levels relative to nurses: in one of three colonies levels were similar in nurses and foragers, and in two colonies levels were higher in nurses. Similarly to honey bees, brain Kr-h1 levels were significantly downregulated in the presence versus absence of a queen. Furthermore, in small queenless groups, Kr-h1 levels were downregulated in subordinate workers with undeveloped ovaries relative to dominant individuals with active ovaries. Brain Kr-h1 levels were upregulated by juvenile hormone treatment relative to a vehicle control. Finally, phylogenetic analysis indicates that KR-H1 orthologs are presence across insect orders. Though this protein is highly conserved between honey bees and bumble bees, there are significant differences between orthologs of insects from different orders.

Conclusions

Our results suggest that Kr-h1 is associated with juvenile hormone mediated regulation of reproduction in bumble bees. The expression of this transcription factor is inhibited by the queen and associated with endocrine mediated regulation of social organization in two species of bees. Thus, KR-H1 may transcriptionally regulate a conserved genetic module that is part of a pathway that has been co-opted to function in social behavior, and adjusts the behavior of workers to their social environmental context.