The evolutionary pathway and molecular mechanisms underpinning the evolution of social complexity in termites.

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Lewis Revely

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Start Year

2018 (Cohort 5)

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PhD Project
PhD Title

The evolutionary pathway and molecular mechanisms underpinning the evolution of social complexity in termites.

Research Theme

Evolution and Adaptation

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Major evolutionary transitions to superorganismality have occurred numerous times within social insects. The transition to superorganismality is thought to be irreversible; traits that determine whether a species has transitioned include the loss of totipotency and commitment to a life-time of either reproduction or helping. The ultimate evolutionary explanations for termite superorganismality aren’t well understood; furthermore, the proximate mechanisms by which the evolutionary changes arise are even less well studied. Here, we seek to investigate the genes that control totipotency and commitment across families of termites. To do this we will collect individuals, which are totipotent and committed to lifetime sterility, across multiple species spanning multiple families of termites. We will then sequence the transcriptomes for each species to identify common patterns of transcription associated with totipotency and commitment. RT-qPCR and RNAi experiments will then be conducted to validate the functions of these genes: gene knockdowns are expected to either allow previously committed phenotypes to be plastic, or previously plastic phenotypes to be inflexible. By elucidating whether the presence of totipotent workers within some families of termites is a derived or primitive state, we can conclude whether termites conform to Wheeler’s assumption that superorganismality is irreversible.

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Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), supervised by Phil Tovey. 04/01/2021 – 03/04/2021.

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