Social complexity, life-history and lineage influence the molecular basis of castes in vespid wasps

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A key mechanistic hypothesis for the evolution of division of labour in social insects is that a shared set of genes co-opted from a common solitary ancestral ground plan (a genetic toolkit for sociality) regulates caste differentiation across levels of social complexity. Using brain transcriptome data from nine species of vespid wasps, we test for overlap in differentially expressed caste genes and use machine learning models to predict castes using different gene sets. We find evidence of a shared genetic toolkit across species representing different levels of social complexity. We also find evidence of additional fine-scale differences in predictive gene sets, functional enrichment and rates of gene evolution that are related to level of social complexity, lineage and of colony founding. These results suggest that the concept of a shared genetic toolkit for sociality may be too simplistic to fully describe the process of the major transition to sociality.