The gene road to royalty - Differential expression of hydroxylating genes in the mandibular glands of the honeybee

Osnat Malka*, Iris Karunker, Adva Yeheskel, Shai Morin, Abraham Hefetz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The advances in honeybee sociogenomics have paved the way for the study of social communication processes at the gene level, in particular the expression of caste-specific pheromones. The queen honeybee mandibular pheromone provides an excellent model system, in that biosynthesis of the hydroxylating fatty acid caste-specific pheromone appears to be reduced to a single chemical hydroxylation step of stearic acid. Queens are typified by ω-1- hydroxylation, as opposed to the worker-typical ω-hydroxylation. We hypothesized that this bifurcation is the consequence of differential expression of caste-specific genes that code for fatty acid-hydroxylating enzymes from the cytochrome P450 (CYP) family. Bioinformatics studies disclosed two candidate proteins CYP4AA1 and CYP18A1. We thus investigated the expression of these genes in the mandibular glands of queens, and of queenright (QR) and queenless (QL) workers. The real-time PCR results revealed that CYP4AA1 (ω-hydroxylation) was expressed at high levels in both QR and QL workers, whereas in queens its expression was negligible. The expression of CYP18A1 (ω-1-hydroxylation), on the other hand, was high in the queen's glands and negligible in those of QR workers. In QL workers, however, the expression of CYP18A1 was considerably elevated and significantly greater than in QR workers. Three-dimensional structural models constructed for these enzymes demonstrate differences in the active site between CYP18A1 and CYP4AA1, in line with their differential catalytic specificity. The fact that queen pheromone plasticity can be tracked all the way to gene expression provides a new insight into the process of caste differentiation and the accompanying social communication.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)5481-5490
Number of pages10
JournalFEBS Journal
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 2009


  • Caste specificity
  • Gene expression
  • Honeybee
  • P450
  • Queen pheromone


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