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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Gene expression and the evolution of phenotypic diversity in social wasps

Eric A Hoffman12* and Michael AD Goodisman2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Blvd, Orlando, FL 32816, USA

2 School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, 310 Ferst Drive, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA

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BMC Biology 2007, 5:23  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-5-23

Published: 15 May 2007



Organisms are capable of developing different phenotypes by altering the genes they express. This phenotypic plasticity provides a means for species to respond effectively to environmental conditions. One of the most dramatic examples of phenotypic plasticity occurs in the highly social hymenopteran insects (ants, social bees, and social wasps), where distinct castes and sexes all arise from the same genes. To elucidate how variation in patterns of gene expression affects phenotypic variation, we conducted a study to simultaneously address the influence of developmental stage, sex, and caste on patterns of gene expression in Vespula wasps. Furthermore, we compared the patterns found in this species to those found in other taxa in order to investigate how variation in gene expression leads to phenotypic evolution.


We constructed 11 different cDNA libraries derived from various developmental stages and castes of Vespula squamosa. Comparisons of overall expression patterns indicated that gene-expression differences distinguishing developmental stages were greater than expression differences differentiating sex or caste. Furthermore, we determined that certain sets of genes showed similar patterns of expression in the same phenotypic forms of different species. Specifically, larvae upregulated genes related to metabolism and genes possessing structural activity. Surprisingly, our data indicated that at least a few specific gene functions and at least one specific gene family are important components of caste differentiation across social insect taxa.


Despite research on various aspects of development originating from model systems, growth in understanding how development is related to phenotypic diversity relies on a growing literature of contrasting studies in non-model systems. In this study, we found that comparisons of patterns of gene expression with model systems highlighted areas of conserved and convergent developmental evolution across diverse taxa. Indeed, conserved biological functions across species implicated key functions related to how phenotypes are built. Finally, overall differences between social insect taxa suggest that the independent evolution of caste arose via distinct developmental trajectories.