Diana E. Wheeler

Department of Entomology
University of Arizona


My research interests are dominated by the physiological basis of caste differences in social insects, especially ants. Why ants? Some think it may have been early determination. I am especially interested in the relevance of physiology to both social organization and evolution of insect sociality. My research has included included regulation of oogenesis, storage of proteins by adult workers and queens, mechanisms of sperm storage by queens, and, of course, caste determination.

Caste determination: We are working on the molecular basis of caste determination in honey bees. Since caste is determined by the diet larvae receive, caste determination involves signaling pathways that are fundamental to pathways regulated by nutrition in all organisms, even single-celled ones. Insulin and TOR signaling pathways are turning out to be especially important. We are also working to understand how pathways are shaped by natural selection acting at the level of the colony, in addition to at the level of the individual. Our partner in this project is Jay Evans and the USDA Bee Research Lab in Maryland. We are also collaborating with Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman at the USDA Bee Research Lab in Tucson.

Role of endosymbionts in the biology of Camponotus ants: Molecular methods have opened up the world of unculturable bacteria for us. The presence of endosymbionts in Camponotus has been known for decades but only now are we able to explore the functional relationship between Blochmannia bacteria and their ant hosts. We are working to understand the dynamic interactions between the partners, through development, in different castes and in different ecological contexts. Our research partner in this work is Jennifer Wernegreen at the Josephine Bay Paul Center at Woods Hole. I also have a long standing interest in the relationship between cephalotine ants and their gut symbionts.

Storage proteins: Storage proteins serve insects as a bank for amino acid and nitrogen reserves. The importance of storage proteins was first understood in the context of metamorphosis. Members of my lab have shown that storage proteins play many roles in adult insects as a resource for : claustral colony founding in ants, seasonal storage in ants, colony founding in termites, autogenous egg production in mosquitoes, and egg production in Lepidoptera. As universal indicators of nutritional state, storage proteins are turning out to be important aspects of our research on both caste determination in honey bees and endosymbiont interactions in Camponotus.

Current Lab Members:

Ming Huang is a Ph.D. student interested in ecology and caste in Pheidole ants. Several local species have highly unusual soldier castes showing a wide range of soldier sizes. He is interested in the development of worker caste demography during colony ontogeny and in the ecological significance of super soldiers.

Kirk Anderson is a post-doctoral researcher studying genetic and environmental systems of queen determination in Pogonomyrmex ants.

Norm Buck is research specialist with extensive experience with biochemical, molecular, and programming tools important in probing numerous aspects of insect biology.

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Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Insect Science
Department of Entomology
The University of Arizona