Age- and caste-independent piRNAs in the germline and miRNA profiles linked to caste and fecundity in the ant Temnothorax rugatulus.
Social insects are models for studies of phenotypic plasticity. Ant queens and workers vary in fecundity and lifespan, which are enhanced and extended in queens. Yet, the regulatory mechanisms underlying this variation are not well understood. Ant queens live and reproduce for years, so that they need to protect their germline from transposable element (TE) activity, which may be redundant in short-lived, often sterile workers. We analysed the expression of two protective classes of small RNAs, microRNAs (miRNAs) and Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs), in various tissues, castes and age classes of the ant Temnothorax rugatulus. In queens, piRNAs were highly abundant in ovaries with TEs being their clear targets, with reduced but still detectable piRNA-specific ping-pong signatures in thorax and brains. piRNA pathway activity varied little with age in queens. Moreover, the reduced ovaries of workers also exhibited similar piRNA activity and this not only in young, fertile workers, but also in older foragers with regressed ovaries. Therefore, these ants protect their germline through piRNA activity, regardless of ovarian development, age or caste, even in sterile workers often considered the soma of the superorganism. Our tissue-specific miRNA analysis detected the expression of 304 miRNAs, of which 105 were expressed in all tissues, 10 enriched in the brain, three in the thorax, whereas 83 were ovarian-specific. We identified ovarian miRNAs whose expression was related to caste, fecundity and age, and which likely regulate group-specific gene expression. sRNA shifts in young- to middle-aged queens were minor, suggesting delayed senescence in this reproductive caste.