Genome sequencing projects underway
One of the main research interests in our group is learning about the major evolutionary transition to superorganismality1–3. Evolutionary biologists have traditionally focussed on studying this topic using model social insect species that have already undergone the transition, such as the honeybee Apis mellifera4, the fire ant Solenopsis invicta5. We argue, however, that to understand the proximate mechanisms underpinning a major transition one also needs to study species from the early and intermediate stages of a transition6. Wasps provide an excellent system for taking this approach, because they exhibit a remarkable diversity in social complexity.
To this end, we’ve identified several wasp species that we think will help us understand more about the different stages in the major evolutionary transition to superorganismality. We already know a lot about these species in terms of their social behaviours from past studies and new work undertaken out in the field. Now, however, we’re working hard to sequence the genomes and transcriptomes of these wasps to learn more about how wasp gene regulatory networks give rise to the characteristics that are likely to be important in the major transition, such as the emergence of a division of labour among developmentally fixed castes. We’re currently sequencing the genomes and phenotype-specific transcriptomes for:
Ammophila pubescens (Sphecidae)
Liostenogaster flavolineata (Stenogastrinae)
Polistes canadensis (Polistinae) Patalano et al72015 PNAS
Polistes sulcifer (Polistinae)
Metapolybia cingulata (Polistinae)
Polybia occidenatalis (Polistinae)
Vespa velutina (Vespinae)
Vespa crabro (Vespinae)
The genome sequence of Vespa velutina will be sequenced in conjunction with the Sanger Institute and is being funded as part of the I’m a Scientist competition that we won in December 2017 (read more here). The remaining genome sequences are being sequenced in conjunction with our collaborators and are funded as part of a NERC grant to understand the proximate mechanisms of major evolutionary transitions (read more here).
Our collaborators include members of: Centre for Genomic Regulation (Spain), University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (Austria), University of Bristol (UK), Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UK), University of Florence (Italy), University of Pisa (Italy), University of La Rochelle (France), University of Bordeaux (France), and The Honey Bee and Silkworm Unit, CREA (Italy).
 Boomsma, J. J. & Gawne, R. Superorganismality and caste differentiation as points of no return: How the major evolutionary transitions were lost in translation. Biol. Rev. (2017). doi:10.1111/brv.12330
 Szathmáry, E. & Maynard Smith, J. The major evolutionary transitions. Nature 374, 227–232 (1995).
 West, S. A., Fisher, R. M., Gardner, A. & Kiers, E. T. Major evolutionary transitions in individuality. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 201421402 (2015).
 Kapheim, K. M. et al. Genomic signatures of evolutionary transitions from solitary to group living. Science (80-. ). aaa4788 (2015).
 Gotzek, D. & Ross, K. G. Experimental Conversion of Colony Social Organization in Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta): Worker Genotype Manipulation in the Absence of Queen Effects. J. Insect Behav. 21, 337–350 (2008).
 Taylor, D., Bentley, M. A. & Sumner, S. Social wasps as models to reveal the molecular mechanisms underlying major evolutionary transitions to superorganismality. In prep. (2018).
 Patalano, S. et al. Molecular signatures of plastic phenotypes in two eusocial insect species with simple societies. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 112, 13970–13975 (2015).