Daniel J. Kronauer
The Evolution and Organization of Insect Societies
Social insects, like ants, bees, wasps and termites, live in highly complex societies with sophisticated social behavior, communication and division of labor. Insect societies are socially integrated to such an extent that they are often portrayed as "superorganisms" in which different morphological or behavioral castes have different functions, similar to the different tissues of an organism. These networks of mutually attuned specialists have enabled social insects to evolve to ecological dominance in many terrestrial ecosystems. Members of my lab at Rockefeller University use an integrative approach to understand how natural selection shapes the evolution of insect societies and how social life is regulated at different hierarchical levels: the gene, the individual and the colony.
A major line of investigation in my lab addresses the molecular basis of social behavior and division of labor. In social insects, developmental trajectories, adult physiology and individual behavior are highly dynamic and contingent upon the social environment. Our goal is to understand how the social environment is perceived by an individual, how the social environment interacts with an individual’s genome to govern gene expression, how this affects individual physiology and behavior and how the altered individual state in turn feeds back into the social environment of the colony.
In other projects we are interested in the evolution of social insect mating systems and how the genetic composition of insect societies affects colony performance and shapes the evolution of individual and group behavior. For example, high genetic diversity might be adaptive in some insect societies because it increases colony-level resistance against pathogens, improves colony homeostasis and facilitates effective and complex division of labor. On the other hand, decreased relatedness between individuals can weaken the incentives for cooperation and exacerbate social conflicts.
Finally, we study the manifold symbiotic interactions between ants and other organisms. These interactions range from bacteria in the ant gut that are thought to upgrade the ants’ diet, to highly specialized arthropods, so-called myrmecophiles, which live inside ant colonies as mutualists, commensals, or parasites.