Social exploitation of hexamerin: RNAi reveals a major caste-regulatory factor in termites

Xuguo Zhou, Faith M. Oi, Michael E. Scharf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Lower termites express a unique form of eusocial polyphenism in that totipotent workers can differentiate into either soldier or reproductive caste phenotypes. In this initial effort using RNA interference in termites, we found that two hexamerin genes. Hex-1 and Hex-2, participate in the regulation of caste polyphenism. Our methodology involved a dual gene-silencing approach that used a single short-interfering RNA fragment to silence the two homologous hexamerin genes. We performed validation studies that evaluated effects on nontarget housekeeping genes, silencing of a nonhousekeeping control gene, and effects at the protein level. We found that the two hexamerin proteins, which are inducible by the morphogenetic juvenile hormone and which constitute a significant proportion of total termite protein, suppress juvenile-hormone- dependent worker differentiation to the soldier caste phenotype. This mechanism allows termite colonies to retain high proportions of altruistic worker caste members, thus apparently enhancing colony-inclusive fitness. These findings demonstrate a unique status quo regulatory mechanism for termite worker caste retention and provide an example of previously undescribed preadult developmental/caste-regulatory genes from any social insect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4499-4504
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number12
StatePublished - Mar 21 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Juvenile hormone
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • RNA interference
  • Short-interfering RNA
  • Sociogenomics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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