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Specialized odorant receptors in social insects that detect cuticular hydrocarbon cues and candidate pheromones


Eusocial insects use cuticular hydrocarbons as components of pheromones that mediate social behaviours, such as caste and nestmate recognition, and regulation of reproduction. In ants such as Harpegnathos saltator, the queen produces a pheromone which suppresses the development of workers' ovaries and if she is removed, workers can transition to a reproductive state known as gamergate. Here we functionally characterize a subfamily of odorant receptors (Ors) with a nine-exon gene structure that have undergone a massive expansion in ants and other eusocial insects. We deorphanize 22 representative members and find they can detect cuticular hydrocarbons from different ant castes, with one (HsOr263) that responds strongly to gamergate extract and a candidate queen pheromone component. After systematic testing with a diverse panel of hydrocarbons, we find that most Harpegnathos saltator Ors are narrowly tuned, suggesting that several receptors must contribute to detection and discrimination of different cuticular hydrocarbons important in mediating eusocial behaviour.Cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC) mediate the interactions between individuals in eusocial insects, but the sensory receptors for CHCs are unclear. Here the authors show that in ants such as H. saltator, the 9-exon subfamily of odorant receptors (HsOrs) responds to CHCs, and ectopic expression of HsOrs in Drosophila neurons imparts responsiveness to CHCs.

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