Gene expression differences in relation to age and social environment in queen and worker bumble bees

Gabrielle A. Lockett, Edward J. Almond, Timothy J. Huggins, Joel D. Parker, Andrew F. G. Bourke

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Eusocial insects provide special insights into the genetic pathways influencing aging because of their long-lived queens and flexible aging schedules. Using qRT-PCR in the primitively eusocial bumble bee Bombus terrestris (Linnaeus), we investigated expression levels of four candidate genes associated with taxonomically widespread age-related pathways (coenzyme Q biosynthesis protein 7, COQ7; DNA methyltransferase 3, Dnmt3; foraging, for; and vitellogenin, vg). In Experiment 1, we tested how expression changes with queen relative age and productivity. We found a significant age-related increase in COQ7 expression in queen ovary. In brain, all four genes showed higher expression with increasing female (queen plus worker) production, with this relationship strengthening as queen age increased, suggesting a link with the positive association of fecundity and longevity found in eusocial insect queens. In Experiment 2, we tested effects of relative age and social environment (worker removal) in foundress queens and effects of age and reproductive status in workers. In this experiment, workerless queens showed significantly higher for expression in brain, as predicted if downregulation of for is associated with the cessation of foraging by foundress queens following worker emergence. Workers showed a significant age-related increase in Dnmt3 expression in fat body, suggesting a novel association between aging and methylation in B. terrestris. Ovary activation was associated with significantly higher vg expression in fat body and, in younger workers, in brain, consistent with vitellogenin's ancestral role in regulating egg production. Overall, our findings reveal a mixture of novel and conserved features in age-related genetic pathways under primitive eusociality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52–61
Number of pages10
JournalExperimental Gerontology
Early online date13 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - May 2016


  • Aging
  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenetics
  • Gene expression
  • Social environment
  • Social insect

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