As conventional reductionist approaches can overlook the effects of interactions, we attempt to apply integrative, systems-level approaches that strive to include important biological complexity. For example, the interacting phenotypes framework, an extension of standard quantitative genetics, begins to account for the effects of social interactions by considering how an individual's phenotype depends directly on its own genes and indirectly on genes expressed by social partners. Furthermore, emerging technologies (e.g., RNA sequencing) make it feasible to begin to study the full molecular network of genes determining traits of interest in non-model organisms. We combine these tools with others from quantitative genetics, genomics, transcriptomics, and behavioral ecology, including behavioral observation and experimental manipulation.
We use social insects as a study system because social insects are "truly social" (i.e. eusocial). Social interactions pervade all aspects of life in insect societies; it is well known that both colony-level traits (e.g., foraging patterns and nest architecture) and individual-level traits (e.g., body size and caste) in social insects are regulated by social interactions. Thus, if social interactions are unimportant for the genetic basis and evolution of social insect traits, then they are likely unimportant for other organisms with less derived social systems. But on the other hand, social interactions are ubiquitous, even in organisms that are usually described as being "solitary", and insights from social insects are likely to be broadly applicable.
We can study the molecular and behavioral mechansism underlying social trait expression at the following three levels: A. Gene regulatory networks within and between interacting individual; B. behavioral interaction networks for groups of interacting individuals; and C. colony-level social mechanisms that regulate task allocation. Subsequently, we can study how these mechanisms contribute to trait variation, fitness variation, and the social evolutionary process.
Our main study species that we have been developing as a new model system since 2008 is the pharaoh ant Monomorium pharaonis. In addition, we use four other study systems, each with their own strengths to study several related topics. Some of the current projects are described below:
An exciting new ant model to study the evolutionary genetic and behavioral basis of complex social traits: the pharaoh ant, Monomorium pharaonis
Using transcriptomic and comparative genomic approaches to study the molecular underpinnings of social behavior and social evolution in social spiders
Developing new artificial selection and sociogenomic approaches to improve honey bee queen quality
Social mechanisms of disease resistance in the acorn ant Temnothorax curvispinosus
The coevolution of symbiotic fungi and bacteria in the clonal fungus-growing ant Mycocepurus smithii