Open Access Open Badges Research article

Genes involved in thoracic exoskeleton formation during the pupal-to-adult molt in a social insect model, Apis mellifera

Michelle Prioli Miranda Soares1, Angel Roberto Barchuk2, Ana Carolina Quirino Simões3, Alexandre dos Santos Cristino4, Flávia Cristina de Paula Freitas1, Luísa Lange Canhos5 and Márcia Maria Gentile Bitondi5*

Author Affiliations

1 Departamento de Genética, Faculdade de Medicina de Ribeirão Preto, Universidade de São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, SP, Brasil

2 Departamento de Biologia Celular, Tecidual e do Desenvolvimento, Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas, Universidade Federal de Alfenas, Alfenas, MG, Brazil

3 Centro de Engenharia, Modelagem e Ciências Sociais Aplicadas – CECS, Universidade Federal do ABC, Santo André, SP, Brazil

4 The Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

5 Departamento de Biologia, Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras de Ribeirão Preto, Universidade de São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, SP, Brasil

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BMC Genomics 2013, 14:576  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-14-576

Published: 28 August 2013



The insect exoskeleton provides shape, waterproofing, and locomotion via attached somatic muscles. The exoskeleton is renewed during molting, a process regulated by ecdysteroid hormones. The holometabolous pupa transforms into an adult during the imaginal molt, when the epidermis synthe3sizes the definitive exoskeleton that then differentiates progressively. An important issue in insect development concerns how the exoskeletal regions are constructed to provide their morphological, physiological and mechanical functions. We used whole-genome oligonucleotide microarrays to screen for genes involved in exoskeletal formation in the honeybee thoracic dorsum. Our analysis included three sampling times during the pupal-to-adult molt, i.e., before, during and after the ecdysteroid-induced apolysis that triggers synthesis of the adult exoskeleton.


Gene ontology annotation based on orthologous relationships with Drosophila melanogaster genes placed the honeybee differentially expressed genes (DEGs) into distinct categories of Biological Process and Molecular Function, depending on developmental time, revealing the functional elements required for adult exoskeleton formation. Of the 1,253 unique DEGs, 547 were upregulated in the thoracic dorsum after apolysis, suggesting induction by the ecdysteroid pulse. The upregulated gene set included 20 of the 47 cuticular protein (CP) genes that were previously identified in the honeybee genome, and three novel putative CP genes that do not belong to a known CP family. In situ hybridization showed that two of the novel genes were abundantly expressed in the epidermis during adult exoskeleton formation, strongly implicating them as genuine CP genes. Conserved sequence motifs identified the CP genes as members of the CPR, Tweedle, Apidermin, CPF, CPLCP1 and Analogous-to-Peritrophins families. Furthermore, 28 of the 36 muscle-related DEGs were upregulated during the de novo formation of striated fibers attached to the exoskeleton. A search for cis-regulatory motifs in the 5′-untranslated region of the DEGs revealed potential binding sites for known transcription factors. Construction of a regulatory network showed that various upregulated CP- and muscle-related genes (15 and 21 genes, respectively) share common elements, suggesting co-regulation during thoracic exoskeleton formation.


These findings help reveal molecular aspects of rigid thoracic exoskeleton formation during the ecdysteroid-coordinated pupal-to-adult molt in the honeybee.

Cuticular protein genes; Metamorphosis; Molt; Thoracic musculature; Microarrays; Honeybee; Apis mellifera