Social insects are well-known and important contributors to biodiversity and sustainability. Their complex societies, ability to divide and attribute tasks to specialized workers as well as their ability to act to protect the interest of the group over a single individual have been a subject of wonder. Indeed, determining the relative role of nature versus nurture in social behaviors has been of interest since the dawn of genetics for human societies and social insects offer a unique perspective and insight into such matters. Furthermore, they could also provide insights into the origins and evolution of collective behavior. To this date, we know very little of the processes that drove the transition from a solitary lifestyle to a highly organized and complex society.
The genomes of many social insects have been sequenced to date since the first western honeybee Apis mellifera published in 2006 with the hope to answer questions such as: Is there a specific “social genome” or “social gene” that could determine eusociality? Is there a specific size difference or complexity that can explain the development of social behavior? Comparison between social insects and their individual counterparts have attempted to answer these questions and thus far the answer appears to be no. Interestingly, it appears there is nothing obvious in these genomes that could easily explain the collective behavior of these individuals. It is worth noting as well that eusociality has appeared multiple times independently and with different levels of complexity thus further demonstrating the fitness advantage in this behavior.
With the molecular era, the field of sociogenomics has developed on the basis of trying to determine why and how different social cues can affect the genomes of the individuals in that society. Sociogenomics depends on genomic datasets; thus, the recent advances in sequencing techniques have allowed the field to thrive. Studies with social insects have led the way in sociogenomics.
Significant insights have been gained such as the fact that the social environment can have a tremendous impact on the genome by impacting the expression of thousands of genes especially in the brain. This led to a better understanding of phenotypic plasticity and the caste system in certain social insects. For example, the fact that the fate of a female honeybee egg is determined by which food it will receive from the nurse bee. Royal jelly will result in a queen while worker jelly will create a worker under.
This BMC Genomics collection has a large spectrum and we welcome any genomics, transcriptomics or proteomics studies involving social insects. We encourage authors to submit novel genomes of social insects and OMICs datasets looking at changes in social insects. We would like to encourage studies with a conservation aspect as well to highlight the importance of social insects and the challenges associated with their protection.
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