Background: In social groups, dominant individuals may socially inhibit reproduction of subordinates using aggressive interactions or, in the case of highly eusocial insects, pheromonal communication. It has been hypothesized these two modes of reproductive inhibition utilize conserved pathways. Here, we use a comparative framework to investigate the chemical and genomic underpinnings of reproductive dominance in the primitively eusocial wasp Polistes metricus. Our goals were to first characterize transcriptomic and chemical correlates of reproductive dominance and second, to test whether dominance-associated mechanisms in paper wasps overlapped with aggression or pheromone-related gene expression patterns in other species. To explore whether conserved molecular pathways relate to dominance, we compared wasp transcriptomic data to previous studies of gene expression associated with pheromonal communication and queen-worker differences in honey bees, and aggressive behavior in bees, Drosophila, and mice.Results: By examining dominant and subordinate females from queen and worker castes in early and late season colonies, we found that cuticular hydrocarbon profiles and genome-wide patterns of brain gene expression were primarily associated with season/social environment rather than dominance status. In contrast, gene expression patterns in the ovaries were associated primarily with caste and ovary activation. Comparative analyses suggest genes identified as differentially expressed in wasp brains are not related to queen pheromonal communication or caste in bees, but were significantly more likely to be associated with aggression in other insects (bees, flies), and even a mammal (mice).Conclusions: This study provides the first comprehensive chemical and molecular analysis of reproductive dominance in paper wasps. We found little evidence for a chemical basis for reproductive dominance in P. metricus, and our transcriptomic analyses suggest that different pathways regulate dominance in paper wasps and pheromone response in bees. Furthermore, there was a substantial impact of season/social environment on gene expression patterns, indicating the important role of external cues in shaping the molecular processes regulating behavior. Interestingly, genes associated with dominance in wasps were also associated with aggressive behavior in bees, solitary insects and mammals. Thus, genes involved in social regulation of reproduction in Polistes may have conserved functions associated with aggression in insects and other taxa.
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