Bee genomes show evolution takes many routes from solitary to social life


TORONTO, May 14, 2015 – An international consortium of researchers, including York University biologists, discovered there are many roads to social evolution, but the evolutionary vehicles tend to be the same.

The paper, “Genomic Signatures of Evolutionary Transitions from Solitary to Group Living,” was published today in the journal Science.

The evolution of sociality has puzzled biologists for century. Charles Darwin considered the evolution of ants and bees, with their sterile workers, to be a special difficulty for his theory of natural selection.

“Social behaviour evolved multiple times in bees, which makes them a great model organism to study the genetics behind sociality,” says York University Professor Amro Zayed, who along with his former post-doctoral fellow Clement Kent, were the only Canadian researchers to work on the project led by the University of Illinois.

The group compared the genomes of 10 bee species that included highly social representatives like honey bees, primitively social species such as bumble bees, and solitary bees that do not have queens and workers.

One of the main findings was that “there is no single road map to eusociality,” said Gene Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.

That was one of the biggest surprises of the research, says Zayed. “We didn’t find common ‘social genes’ in the social bees,”. Instead, the group found that genes are wired in more complex networks in the social species. This suggests that there may be many different trajectories for social evolution. All, however, involved increases in the complexity of gene networks.

Zayed and Kent specifically analyzed rates of gene evolution in the 10 bee species and examined if they were related to social complexity. The analysis relied on Compute Canada’s super computing infrastructure. “The analysis would have taken 20 years to complete on a single CPU,” added Kent.

They found that sociality can strongly influence rates of gene evolution. Many of the genes that had fast rates of evolution in social bees were important for regulating gene networks, which supports the conclusion that re-organizing gene networks is important for the evolution of complexity.

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