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Single-cell dissection of aggression in honeybee colonies


Understanding how genotypic variation results in phenotypic variation is especially difficult for collective behaviour because group phenotypes arise from complex interactions among group members. A genome-wide association study identified hundreds of genes associated with colony-level variation in honeybee aggression, many of which also showed strong signals of positive selection, but the influence of these ‘colony aggression genes’ on brain function was unknown. Here we use single-cell (sc) transcriptomics and gene regulatory network (GRN) analyses to test the hypothesis that genetic variation for colony aggression influences individual differences in brain gene expression and/or gene regulation. We compared soldiers, which respond to territorial intrusion with stinging attacks, and foragers, which do not. Colony environment showed stronger influences on soldier-forager differences in brain gene regulation compared with brain gene expression. GRN plasticity was strongly associated with colony aggression, with larger differences in GRN dynamics detected between soldiers and foragers from more aggressive relative to less aggressive colonies. The regulatory dynamics of subnetworks composed of genes associated with colony aggression genes were more strongly correlated with each other across different cell types and brain regions relative to other genes, especially in brain regions involved with olfaction and vision and multimodal sensory integration, which are known to mediate bee aggression. These results show how group genetics can shape a collective phenotype by modulating individual brain gene regulatory network architecture.