BACKGROUND: Strict regulation of caste differentiation, at the molecular level, is thought to be important to maintain social structure in insect societies. Previously, a number of extrinsic and intrinsic factors have been shown to influence caste composition in termite colonies. One important factor is the influence of nestmates; in particular, soldier termites are known to inhibit hormone-dependent worker-to-soldier differentiation. However, soldier influences on nestmates at the molecular level are virtually unknown. Here, to test the hypothesis that soldiers can influence nestmate gene expression, we investigated the impact of four treatments on whole-body gene expression in totipotent Reticulitermes flavipes workers: (i) juvenile hormone III (JHIII; a morphogenetic hormone), (ii) soldier head extracts (SHE), (iii) JHIII+SHE, and (iv) live soldiers.

RESULTS: Using quantitative-real-time PCR we determined the expression patterns of 49 previously identified candidate genes in response to the four treatments at assay days 1, 5, and 10. Thirty-eight total genes from three categories (chemical production/degradation, hemolymph protein, and developmental) showed significant differential expression among treatments. Most importantly, SHE and live soldier treatments had a significant impact on a number of genes from families known to play roles in insect development, supporting previous findings and hypotheses that soldiers regulate nestmate caste differentiation via terpene primer pheromones contained in their heads.

CONCLUSIONS: This research provides new insights into the impacts that socio-environmental factors (JH, soldiers, primer pheromones) can have on termite gene expression and caste differentiation, and reveals a number of socially-relevant genes for investigation in subsequent caste differentiation research.

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Published in BMC Molecular Biology, v. 11, 28.

© 2010 Tarver et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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