Ant brain complexity revealed for the first time at a cellular level using single-cell technology

Summary: Using single-cell technology, researchers discover how the social division of labor in an ant colony reflects the functional specialization of the ant brain at a cellular level.

Source: BGI Group

International researchers led by China’s BGI-Research have used single-cell technology to study ant brains, explaining for the first time how the social division of labor within ant colonies reflects the functional specialization of their brains at cellular levels.

In a study, ‘A single-cell transcriptomic atlas tracing the neural basis of division of labor in an ant superorganism’, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists at BGI Group’s BGI-Research, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences , The University of Copenhagen and others applied BGI’s DNBeLab single-cell library platform to obtain over 200,000 single-core transcriptomes from pharaoh ant brains and constructed a single-cell transcriptome map covering all adult phenotypes of this ant species. : workers, males, gynes (virgin queens) and queens.

Ants are one of the most successful organisms on Earth, having existed for over 140 million years. The biomass (determined by multiplying an estimated population by the average weight of its members) of ants is estimated to be similar to the biomass of humans. The ants’ success is generally attributed to their remarkable social behavior with a clear reproductive division of labor.

Ant colonies have been conceptualized as superorganisms for over a century. Now, taking advantage of single-cell technology, scientists have been able to systematically determine the cellular complexity in an ant’s brain and assess the difference in brain cell composition between individuals within the same colony.

“Our findings suggest that the functional specialization of their brains appears to be a mechanism underlying the division of social tasks among individual ants,” says Dr. Qiye Li, first author of the paper and researcher at BGI-Research. “We humans learn and train ourselves to do different jobs, while ants are born with a specific role in their colony.”

The research team found that the brains of worker and male ants are extremely specialized and highly complementary. Neurons responsible for learning and memory and processing olfactory information are particularly abundant in workers, while the abundance of optic lobe cells responsible for processing visual information is very low. This trend is reversed in male ant brains, where there are an abundance of optic lobe cells but fewer neurons for olfactory processing, learning and memory.

“These findings corroborate our laboratory observations that pharaoh ant workers are responsible for all colony maintenance tasks that need multipurpose brains, while males do not participate in any colony maintenance tasks as their only function is to find and inseminate a virgin. queen,” said Dr. Weiwei Liu, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and corresponding co-author of the paper.

The analysis also identified significant changes in the gynes’ brains as they transformed into queens after mating. For example, the abundance of optic lobe cells decreased as queens adapted to the darkness of the nest, while dopaminergic neurons and sheathed glia increased, which may explain the fecundity and longevity of queens.

“This is the first single-cell atlas that covers all social roles in an ant colony. His achievement benefits from the development of massively parallel single cell profiling technology with high sensitivity and accuracy at a low cost.” said Dr. Chuanyu Liu, co-author and researcher at BGI-Research.

When comparing the brain cells of the pharaoh ant and Drosophila fruit fly, the researchers also found many types of cells conserved in insect brains. For example, a population of optic lobe cells in Drosophila responsible for detecting object movement during courtship also exists in ants and is particularly abundant in males.

Ants are one of the most successful organisms on Earth, having existed for over 140 million years. The image is in the public domain

The molecular signature and spatial location of these cells are very similar in the two distant insects, suggesting that these cells likely play a conserved role in regulating male mating behavior in insects, regardless of sociability.

“This study helps us understand the complexity of ant brains and how the complementary specialization in the brains allows ants within a colony to function as a superorganism,” said Professor Guojie Zhang, corresponding co-author at the Center for Research in Biology. Evolutionary and Organismal School of Medicine, Zhejiang University.

“The brains of different castes and sexes are specialized in different directions and complementary to each other, allowing the entire ant colony to perform the full range of functions, including reproduction, brood rearing, foraging and defense.

“This superorganismatic life strategy has allowed ants to flourish through over 140 million years of competition and ultimately become a highly dominant animal group on Earth.”

Ethical approval was received for this research.

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Richard Lee
Source: BGI Group
Contact: Richard Li – BGI Group
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original search: Free access.
“A single-cell transcriptomic atlas tracing the neural basis of division of labor in an ant superorganism” by Qiye Li et al. Nature Ecology and Evolution

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Abstract

A single-cell transcriptomic atlas tracing the neural basis of division of labor in an ant superorganism

Ant colonies with permanent division of labor between castes and highly distinct sex roles have been conceptualized as superorganisms, but the cellular and molecular mechanisms that mediate caste/sex-specific behavioral specialization have remained unclear.

Here we characterize the brain cell repertoire of queens, gynes (virgin queens), workers and males of Pharaoh’s Monomorium obtaining 206,367 single-core transcriptomes.

In contrast to Drosophilamushroom body Kenyon cells are abundant in ants and exhibit a high diversity with most subtypes being enriched in the brains of workers, the evolutionarily derived caste.

Male brains are as specialized as worker brains, but with opposite tendencies in cellular composition, with greater abundance of all optic lobe neuronal subtypes, while the composition of gyne and queen brains remained generalized, reminiscent of solitary ancestors.

Differentiation of roles from virgin gynes to inseminated queens induces changes in abundance in approximately 35% of cell types, indicating active neurogenesis and/or programmed cell death during this transition.

We also identified insemination-induced cellular changes likely associated with reproductive caste longevity and fecundity, including increases in sheathed glia and a dopamine-regulated cell population. Q31-expressing neurons.

We conclude that permanent caste differentiation and extreme sexual differentiation induced major changes in ant neural circuitry.

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