Published for the Company of Biologists Ltd. by the Cambridge University Press
The Journal of Experimental Biology vol:218 issue:Pt 1 pages:88-99
Insects are one of the most successful classes on Earth, reflected in an enormous species richness and diversity. Arguably, this success is partly due to the high degree to which polyphenism, where one genotype gives rise to more than one phenotype, is exploited by many of its species. In social insects, for instance, larval diet influences the development into distinct castes; and locust polyphenism has tricked researchers for years into believing that the drastically different solitarious and gregarious phases might be different species. Solitarious locusts behave much as common grasshoppers. However, they are notorious for forming vast, devastating swarms upon crowding. These gregarious animals are shorter lived, less fecund and transmit their phase characteristics to their offspring. The behavioural gregarisation occurs within hours, yet the full display of gregarious characters takes several generations, as does the reversal to the solitarious phase. Hormones, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters influence some of the phase traits; however, none of the suggested mechanisms can account for all the observed differences, notably imprinting effects on longevity and fecundity. This is why, more recently, epigenetics has caught the interest of the polyphenism field. Accumulating evidence points towards a role for epigenetic regulation in locust phase polyphenism. This is corroborated in the economically important locust species Locusta migratoria and Schistocerca gregaria. Here, we review the key elements involved in phase transition in locusts and possible epigenetic regulation. We discuss the relative role of DNA methylation, histone modification and small RNA molecules, and suggest future research directions.