One of the greatest challenges of modern biology is to demystify the overwhelming complexity of living things. Is it possible to explain how intricately complex organisms come to be, both during a lifetime through development, and across millennia through evolution?
Genes are clearly important building blocks. But even more important may be how and when particular genes are used, or expressed. The project team has been studying the role of gene expression in organizing the complex societies of bees and wasps, whose incredibly sophisticated social behavior in many ways rivals human society. In the proposed work, they will be using new cutting-edge technologies, involving the generation of huge repositories of DNA and RNA sequence information, to compare how genes are expressed in the brains of social wasp queens and workers. They will investigate the idea that animals with great flexibility and coordination in how their genes are expressed may be more likely to evolve complex, cooperative societies. If so, this may be one of the "secrets" to how social complexity evolves, and these findings can bring us closer to understanding the genetic processes that allow organisms to become so diverse and well-adapted to their environments.
This project will also provide numerous training and educational opportunities. Several students (including some from underrepresented groups) and a postdoctoral research associate will be broadly trained in field and laboratory techniques, and will learn some of the latest genetic methods and analyses. The project team will also engage a local high school teacher in the project research, with the aim of sharing their findings through educational programs with school districts in rural Iowa. The Principal Investigator plans to present several public lectures and outreach activities to educate the broader community about topics such as pollinator biology and health, genetics, and evolution.