Iterative evolution of supergene-based social polymorphism in ants

T. Kay, Q. Helleu and L. Keller,  Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci,  377:20210196. 2022.

Species commonly exhibit alternative morphs, with individual fate being determined during development by either genetic factors, environmental cues or a combination thereof. Ants offer an interesting case study because many species are polymorphic in their social structure. Some colonies contain one queen while others contain many queens. This variation in queen number is generally associated with a suite of phenotypic and life-history traits, including mode of colony founding, queen lifespan, queen-worker dimorphism and colony size. The basis of this social polymorphism has been studied in five ant lineages, and remarkably social morph seems to be determined by a supergene in all cases. These ‘social supergenes’ tend to be large, having formed through serial inversions, and to comprise hundreds of linked genes. They have persisted over long evolutionary timescales, in multiple lineages following speciation events, and have spread between closely related species via introgression. Their evolutionary dynamics are unusually complex, combining recessive lethality, spatially variable selection, selfish genetic elements and non-random mating. Here, we synthesize the five cases of supergene-based social polymorphism in ants, highlighting interesting commonalities, idiosyncrasies and implications for the evolution of polymorphisms in general. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Genomic architecture of supergenes: causes and evolutionary consequences’.

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