Open Access Research article

Comparative genomics and transcriptomics in ants provide new insights into the evolution and function of odorant binding and chemosensory proteins

Sean K McKenzie*, Peter R Oxley and Daniel JC Kronauer

Author Affiliations

Laboratory of Insect Social Evolution, The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, 10065 New York, NY, USA

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BMC Genomics 2014, 15:718  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-718

Published: 26 August 2014



The complex societies of ants and other social insects rely on sophisticated chemical communication. Two families of small soluble proteins, the odorant binding and chemosensory proteins (OBPs and CSPs), are believed to be important in insect chemosensation. To better understand the role of these proteins in ant olfaction, we examined their evolution and expression across the ants using phylogenetics and sex- and tissue-specific RNA-seq.


We find that subsets of both OBPs and CSPs are expressed in the antennae, contradicting the previous hypothesis that CSPs have replaced OBPs in ant olfaction. Both protein families have several highly conserved clades with a single ortholog in all eusocial hymenopterans, as well as clades with more dynamic evolution and many taxon-specific radiations. The dynamically evolving OBPs and CSPs have been hypothesized to function in chemical communication. Intriguingly, we find that seven members of the conserved clades are expressed specifically in the antennae of the clonal raider ant Cerapachys biroi, whereas only one dynamically evolving CSP is antenna specific. The orthologs of the conserved, antenna-specific C. biroi genes are also expressed in antennae of the ants Camponotus floridanus and Harpegnathos saltator, indicating that antenna-specific expression of these OBPs and CSPs is conserved across ants. Most members of the dynamically evolving clades in both protein families are expressed primarily in non-chemosensory tissues and thus likely do not fulfill chemosensory functions.


Our results identify candidate OBPs and CSPs that are likely involved in conserved aspects of ant olfaction, and suggest that OBPs and CSPs may not rapidly evolve to recognize species-specific signals.

Chemical communication; Sociogenomics; Formicidae; Chemosensation; OBP; CSP; Comparative genomics