Accelerated Evolution of Innate Immunity Proteins in Social Insects: Adaptive Evolution or Relaxed Constraint?

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The genomes of eusocial insects have a reduced complement of immune genes—an unusual finding considering that sociality provides ideal conditions for disease transmission. The following three hypotheses have been invoked to explain this finding: 1) social insects are attacked by fewer pathogens, 2) social insects have effective behavioral or 3) novel molecular mechanisms for combating pathogens. At the molecular level, these hypotheses predict that canonical innate immune pathways experience a relaxation of selective constraint. A recent study of several innate immune genes in ants and bees showed a pattern of accelerated amino acid evolution, which is consistent with either positive selection or a relaxation of constraint. We studied the population genetics of innate immune genes in the honey bee Apis mellifera by partially sequencing 13 genes from the bee’s Toll pathway (∼10.5 kb) and 20 randomly chosen genes (∼16.5 kb) sequenced in 43 diploid workers. Relative to the random gene set, Toll pathway genes had significantly higher levels of amino acid replacement mutations segregating within A. mellifera and fixed between A. mellifera and A. cerana. However, levels of diversity and divergence at synonymous sites did not differ between the two gene sets. Although we detect strong signs of balancing selection on the pathogen recognition gene pgrp-sa, many of the genes in the Toll pathway show signatures of relaxed selective constraint. These results are consistent with the reduced complement of innate immune genes found in social insects and support the hypothesis that some aspect of eusociality renders canonical innate immunity superfluous.

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