Epigenetic modifications to DNA, such as DNA methylation, can expand a genome’s regulatory flexibility, and thus may contribute to the evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Recent work has demonstrated the importance of DNA methylation in alternative queen and worker “castes” in social insects, particularly honeybees. Social insects are an excellent system for addressing questions about epigenetics and evolution because: (1) they have dramatic caste polyphenisms that appear to be tied to differential methylation, (2) DNA methylation is widespread in various groups of social insects, and (3) there are intriguing connections between the social environment and DNA methylation in many species, from insects to mammals. In this article, we review research on honeybees, and, when available, other social insects, on DNA methylation and queen and worker caste differences. We outline a conceptual framework for the effects of methylation on caste determination in honeybees that may help guide studies of epigenetic regulation in other polyphenic taxa. Finally, we suggest future paths of study for social insect epigenetic research, including the importance of comparative studies of DNA methylation on a broader range of species, and highlight some key unanswered mechanistic questions about how DNA methylation affects gene regulation.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/amy-toth/3/