A Genomic Imprinting Model of Termite Caste Determination: Not Genetic but Epigenetic Inheritance Influences Offspring Caste Fate. Academic Article uri icon


  • Eusocial insects exhibit the most striking example of phenotypic plasticity. There has been a long controversy over the factors determining caste development of individuals in social insects. Here we demonstrate that parental phenotypes influence the social status of offspring not through genetic inheritance but through genomic imprinting in termites. Our extensive field survey and genetic analysis of the termite Reticulitermes speratus show that its breeding system is inconsistent with a genetic caste determination model. We therefore developed a genomic imprinting model, in which queen- and king-specific epigenetic marks antagonistically influence sexual development of offspring. The model accounts for all known empirical data on caste differentiation of R. speratus and other related species. By conducting colony-founding experiments and additively incorporating relevant socio-environmental factors into our genomic imprinting model, we show the relative importance of genomic imprinting and environmental factors in caste determination. The idea of epigenetic inheritance of sexual phenotypes solves the puzzle of why parthenogenetically produced daughters carrying only maternal chromosomes exclusively develop into queens and why parental phenotypes (nymph- or worker-derived reproductives) strongly influence caste differentiation of offspring. According to our model, the worker caste is seen as a "neuter" caste whose sexual development is suppressed due to counterbalanced maternal and paternal imprinting and opens new avenues for understanding the evolution of caste systems in social insects.

published proceedings

  • Am Nat

altmetric score

  • 5.1

author list (cited authors)

  • Matsuura, K., Mizumoto, N., Kobayashi, K., Nozaki, T., Fujita, T., Yashiro, T., ... Vargo, E. L.

citation count

  • 33

complete list of authors

  • Matsuura, Kenji||Mizumoto, Nobuaki||Kobayashi, Kazuya||Nozaki, Tomonari||Fujita, Tadahide||Yashiro, Toshihisa||Fuchikawa, Taro||Mitaka, Yuki||Vargo, Edward L

publication date

  • June 2018