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Caste- and development-associated gene expression in a lower termite

Michael E Scharf*, Dancia Wu-Scharf, Barry R Pittendrigh and Gary W Bennett

Author Affiliations

Department of Entomology, Purdue University, 901 W State Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2089, USA

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Genome Biology 2003, 4:R62  doi:10.1186/gb-2003-4-10-r62

Published: 26 September 2003



Social insects such as termites express dramatic polyphenism (the occurrence of multiple forms in a species on the basis of differential gene expression) both in association with caste differentiation and between castes after differentiation. We have used cDNA macroarrays to compare gene expression between polyphenic castes and intermediary developmental stages of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes.


We identified differentially expressed genes from nine ontogenic categories. Quantitative PCR was used to quantify precise differences in gene expression between castes and between intermediary developmental stages. We found worker and nymph-biased expression of transcripts encoding termite and endosymbiont cellulases; presoldier-biased expression of transcripts encoding the storage/hormone-binding protein vitellogenin; and soldier-biased expression of gene transcripts encoding two transcription/translation factors, two signal transduction factors and four cytoskeletal/muscle proteins. The two transcription/translation factors showed significant homology to the bicaudal and bric-a-brac developmental genes of Drosophila.


Our results show differential expression of regulatory, structural and enzyme-coding genes in association with termite castes and their developmental precursor stages. They also provide the first glimpse into how insect endosymbiont cellulase gene expression can vary in association with the caste of a host. These findings shed light on molecular processes associated with termite biology, polyphenism, caste differentiation and development and highlight potentially interesting variations in developmental themes between termites, other insects, and higher animals.