Structure and function of gene regulatory networks associated with worker sterility in honeybees.
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A characteristic of eusocial bees is a reproductive division of labor in which one or a few queens monopolize reproduction, while her worker daughters take on reproductively altruistic roles within the colony. The evolution of worker reproductive altruism involves indirect selection for the coordinated expression of genes that regulate personal reproduction, but evidence for this type of selection remains elusive. In this study, we tested whether genes coexpressed under queen-induced worker sterility show evidence of adaptive organization within a model brain transcriptional regulatory network (TRN). If so, this structured pattern would imply that indirect selection on nonreproductive workers has influenced the functional organization of genes within the network, specifically to regulate the expression of sterility. We found that literature-curated sets of candidate genes for sterility, ranging in size from 18 to 267, show strong evidence of clustering within the three-dimensional space of the TRN. This finding suggests that our candidate sets of genes for sterility form functional modules within the living bee brain's TRN. Moreover, these same gene sets colocate to a single, albeit large, region of the TRN's topology. This spatially organized and convergent pattern contrasts with a null expectation for functionally unrelated genes to be haphazardly distributed throughout the network. Our meta-genomic analysis therefore provides first evidence for a truly "social transcriptome" that may regulate the conditional expression of honeybee worker sterility.