Shifting behaviour: epigenetic reprogramming in eusocial insects.
ABSTRACT Epigenetic modifications are ancient and widely utilised mechanisms that have been recruited across fungi, plants and animals for diverse but fundamental biological functions, such as cell differentiation. Recently, a functional DNA methylation system was identified in the honeybee, where it appears to underlie queen and worker caste differentiation. This discovery, along with other insights into the epigenetics of social insects, allows provocative analogies to be drawn between insect caste differentiation and cellular differentiation, particularly in mammals. Developing larvae in social insect colonies are totipotent: they retain the ability to specialise as queens or workers, in a similar way to the totipotent cells of early embryos before they differentiate into specific cell lineages. Further, both differentiating cells and insect castes lose phenotypic plasticity by committing to their lineage, losing the ability to be readily reprogrammed. Hence, a comparison of the epigenetic mechanisms underlying lineage differentiation (and reprogramming) between cells and social insects is worthwhile. Here we develop a conceptual model of how loss and regain of phenotypic plasticity might be conserved for individual specialisation in both cells and societies. This framework forges a novel link between two fields of biological research, providing predictions for a unified approach to understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying biological complexity.