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Open Access Research article

Molecular basis for the reproductive division of labour in a lower termite

Tobias Weil12, Michael Rehli2* and Judith Korb1*

Author Affiliations

1 Biologie I, Universität Regensburg, Universitätsstrasse 31, 93040 Regensburg, Germany

2 Hämatologie und Onkologie, Klinikum der Universität Regensburg, Franz-Josef-Strauss-Allee-11, 93053 Regensburg, Germany

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BMC Genomics 2007, 8:198  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-8-198

Published: 28 June 2007



Polyphenism, the expression of different phenotypes with the same genetic background, is well known for social insects. The substantial physiological and morphological differences among the castes generally are the result of differential gene expression. In lower termites, workers are developmentally flexible to become neotenic replacement reproductives via a single moult after the death of the founding reproductives. Thus, both castes (neotenics and workers) are expected to differ mainly in the expression of genes linked to reproductive division of labour, which constitutes the fundamental basis of insect societies.


Representational difference analysis of cDNAs was used to study differential gene expression between neotenics and workers in the drywood termite Cryptotermes secundus (Kalotermitidae). We identified and, at least partially cloned five novel genes that were highly expressed in female neotenics. Quantitative real-time PCR analysis of all five genes in different castes (neotenics, founding reproductives, winged sexuals and workers of both sexes) confirmed the differential expression patterns. In addition, the relative expression of these genes was determined in three body parts of female neotenics (head, thorax, and abdomen) using quantitative real-time PCR.


The identified genes could be involved in the control and regulation of reproductive division of labour. Interestingly, this study revealed an expression pattern partly similar to social Hymenoptera indicating both common and species-specific regulatory mechanisms in hemimetabolous and holometabolous social insects.