I am interested in applying mathematical approaches and new advances in technology to better understand complex biological systems. One remarkable example of biological complexity is the social insects, which possess extreme cooperation and mark a major transition in evolution. My current research projects utilize new genomic tools to explore the mechanisms of complex social organization in social wasps of the genus Polistes.
Caste Determination Across Social Lineages
We investigated the transcriptomic signatures of queen and worker behavioral castes and the role of nutrition in caste determination for the social paper wasp, Polistes metricus. Additionally, we performed the first comparative transcriptome-wide analysis of caste determination among three major Hymenopteran social lineages – ants, bees, and wasps. Our major findings suggest that 1) convergent behavioral phenotypes across social lineages are the product of convergent evolution on molecular mechanism at the level of metabolic pathways and gene networks, and 2) differential nourishment during development influences caste in P. metricus, but does not explain all variability between castes.
Berens, A.J., Hunt, J.H., and Toth, A.L. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 2015. 32: 690-703. doi:10.1093/molbev/msu330
Berens, A.J., Hunt, J.H., and Toth, A.L. BMC Genomics. 2015. 16:235. doi:10.1186/s12864-015-1410-y
NCBI BioProject: PRJNA242774
NCBI GEO: GSE61960
Facial Recognition in Paper Wasps
Some species of Polistes have been discovered to possess the remarkable ability to recognize faces of conspecifics. I received a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement grant (NSF-IOS 1311512) to delve into how facial recognition works on the level of brains and genes within social wasps. From staged social encounters, we found that 1) genes associated with dominance behavior may be co-opted for individual recognition and 2) calcium signaling differences may be related to individual memory recall in wasps.
Berens, A.J., Tibbetts, E.A., Toth, A.L. Journal of Comparative Physiology A. 2016. 202(2):115-129. doi:10.007/s00359-015-1057-9.
Berens, A.J., Tibbetts, E.A., Toth, A.L. "Cognitive specialization for learning faces is associated with shifts in the brain transcriptome of a social wasp". Journal of Experimental Biology. 2017. 220:2149-2153. doi:10.1242/jeb.155200.
NCBI Bioproject: PRJNA287145 (P. fuscatus), PRJNA287152 (P. metricus)
NCBI GEO: GSE70964 (P. fuscatus), GSE70963 (P. metricus)