Suppress-the-mob gene found in queen termites

May help keep workers from illicit, royalty-threatening reproduction

Silencing one gene for a day weakens the grip a termite queen has on her throne. Or at least lets loose a lot of worrisome butting behavior among her subjects.

A worker in an Australian termite species pretty much sticks to its worker role unless researchers silence its queen’s Neofem2 gene. Then workers grow more likely to butt each other, as they do when a queen dies and some of the former subjects develop signs of emerging reproductive capacity (inset, darker termite between paler workers). Courtesy of Simon Tragust and Tobias Weil

Lab colonies of the Australian termite Cryptotermes secundus started acting out as if their queen were dead when researchers disabled her Neofem2 gene, Judith Korb of the University of Osnabrück in Germany and her colleagues report in the May 8 Science. Thus Neofem2 could be the first gene identified in termites that’s crucial for queenly domination, Korb says.

In the world of termites, honeybees and other ultrasocial creatures, the dominant female does most or all of the reproducing even if her workers still have the capacity. Just how she keeps them in line remains a puzzle.

Neofem2 interested researchers because it appears to be more active in C. secundus termite queens than kings and workers of the species. Korb and her colleagues used RNA interference to shut down the gene in queens of eight colonies. Tests permitted only brief observation, but within 24 hours workers were frequently butting into each other as they do in colonies that have lost their queen, the researchers report. Typically, butting is associated with reproductive dominance and an active butt-er becomes the new queen.

Considering genes similar to Neofem2 in other organisms, Korb speculates that the gene could have evolved into its current communication role through the co-optation of a gene for an ancient wood-digesting enzyme.

Studying suppression may someday inspire a way to eradicate termite infestations, Korb says, by killing the queen and chemically mimicking her presence so no new queen emerges.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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