Learning has tremendous impacts on fitness as it allows organism to rapidly adapt to changing environments. The neuro-molecular mechanisms underlying learning have been extensively studied in vertebrates – in particular we have identified genes and mechanisms used in the zebra finch brain while young finches learn song from their peers. In contrast, relatively little is known about analogous processes in insects. Here, we propose to take advantage of a unique social insect system to investigate to which extent the same genes and processes are involved.
In a single-queen fire ant colony, workers know their queens” identity: the workers will execute any other reproductive queen introduced into the colony. But if you remove the queen for one week, the workers” behaviour changes: they will accept a foreign queen and will accept her as their own mother. Similar processes have convergently evolved in other social insect species including bees. Using RNAseq and epigenetic approaches, we will investigate specific hypotheses about the molecular basis underlying the evolution of learning queen identity.