We are eco-evo-devo ...

We are in the midst of a conceptual revolution in the biological sciences as the traditional borders between ecology, developmental and evolutionary biology are breaking down. The general goal of research in the Abouheif lab is to integrate these fields to understand how genes and environment interact during development, and how this interaction influences the evolution of complex biological systems.


This field of research is called eco-evo-devo, which is short for Ecological Evolutionary Developmental Biology. It builds on the groundbreaking discovery of a highly conserved 'genetic tool kit’ that regulates the development of all animals. Over the last four decades, evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) has revealed that this “genetic toolkit” sets up the body plan of all animals. For example, the development of eyes, as different as the compound eyes of flies and complex camera eyes of vertebrates, is regulated by the same toolkit gene called eyeless/Pax-6. The ectopic expression of the mouse Pax-6 gene within the developing wing of a fly can induce the development of an eye on its wing. These findings naturally lead to the following fundamental question––if all animals have similar genes in their genetic toolkit, like eyeless/Pax-6, how is it that animals have evolved to be so diverse in form? eco-evo-devo, with its integrative approach, holds the promise to providing key insights into this question.

We see nature through the ant, and the ant through eco-evo-devo





                                                                     A soldier from the ant genus Pheidole. Image from Ant Web

We primarily focus on ant societies as a model for our eco-evo-devo studies. The division of labor in ant societies, which rivals human societies in its complexity, has made ants one of the most ecologically diverse and evolutionarily successful organisms on our planet, with the ~15000 species making up more than half of the global insect biomass.  


A key trait that has enhanced the division of labor in ants is the evolution of morphological castes, like the winged queen and her wingless workers. The differences between queens and workers can be dramatic – queens possess fully functional wings, are reproductively active, and can live up to 30 years, while workers are wingless, reproduce rarely, and live for just a few months. These dramatic differences between castes are called “polyphenic,” which means they develop largely as a consequence of environmentally induced differences in gene expression during queen and worker development.

                                                        Queen and worker of the ant genus Lasius. Image from Alex Wild

An ant colony can be thought of as a 'superorganism', where the reproductive queen is like the 'germline' of the colony and non-reproductive workers is like the 'soma' of the colony. In essence, these morphological castes in a single ant colony are analagous to the different cell types within a multicellular organism. Therefore,  by understanding how morphological castes differentiate and evolve to form complex ant colonies, we can learn about the processes through which different cell types within a multicellular organism differentiate and evolve to form complex multlicellular organisms.  

A major goal in the Abouheif lab is to uncover how novel castes originated during the origin and evolution of ant societies. Here are three general research themes in the lab:

Theme 1

Uncovering the eco-evo-devo mechanisms underlying the origin and evolution of wing polyphenism in ants




                Left: Queen and Worker from the genus Stigmatomma. Right: The high conserved wing patterning network. Ant Image Alex Wild

Eusociality and wing polyphenism in ants originated together approximately 150 million years ago. In contrast to the later evolved ant lineages, where the morphological differences between castes are striking, societies in the basal lineages are comprised of queen and worker castes that are morphologically similar and can both mate and reproduce. The only major morphological difference between castes is the presence of wings on queens and their absence on workers, which is thought to be the key genetic step that prevented workers from dispersing from their colonies. We are searching for the eco-evo-devo mechanisms that may have led to the origin of wing polyphenism in ants.



Theme 2

Uncover the eco-evo-devo mechanisms underlying the origin and evolution of the reproductive division

of labour in ants








                                                                                      Oocyte from the ant genus Lasius. Image by A. Khila

The reproductive division of labour between queens and workers is the hallmark of eusociality. A main interest in the Abouheif lab is to understand the molecular and developmental mechanisms that produce a queen with fully functional ovaries that can lay millions of eggs in her lifetime or a worker with either reduced reproductive capacities or are completely sterile. This is key for understanding ant colonies as superorganisms develop and evolved a germline / soma division.

Theme 3 

Uncover the eco-evo-devo mechanisms underlying origin and evolution of complex worker caste

systems in ants







                                      Workers in a single colony of carpenter ants (top), big-headed ants (left), and Colobopsis ants (right). 

                                               Ant Image top by Melanie Couture and Domenic Oullette (top) and Alex Wild (bottom)


During ant evolution, the worker caste diversified into a complex system of worker subcastes, like that found in the ant genus Pheidole. A recent discovery in the Abouheif lab (Rajakumar et al., 2012, Science) showed that ancestral genes, which lay dormant for millions of years, can be revived with the right environmental triggers. Three kinds of workers – minor workers, soldiers and supersoldiers – can be observed in the ant genus Pheidole. Though supersoldiers were lost in this genus about 35 to 65 million years ago, we showed it was possible to unlock this hidden genetic potential by applying high doses of hormone at a critical stage in the larvae’s development. Wing precursors called "wing imaginal discs" as well as the gene network regulating wing development are key to understanding these dormant genetic potentials in ants. 


These dormant potentials exist in all animals, as reflected by the sporadic appearance of ancestral traits in individuals that normally should not have them. These traits, such as bird’s teeth and snake’s fingers, are widespread in nature but are traditionally thought to be “freaks” that contribute little to the evolutionary process. Our discovery shows that these dormant genetic potentials, once triggered, act as raw materials for evolution changing this traditional view. Our next step is to uncover the developmental and genetic mechanisms driving the evolution of novel worker subcastes in ants.


Together, these three research themes will take us a step closer to understanding the origins and diversification of a complex biological system.

Funding Agencies
The Abouheif Lab would like to graciously thank the following funding agencies for providing financial support for this research:

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