The rise to royalty; how paper wasps balance specialization and plasticity

How can biological systems achieve specialization but retain plasticity to drive change when needed? Through an international collaboration, researchers from MPI-PKS in Dresden, the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and the BBSRC Alexander Fleming in Athens provide an example from one of nature’s smallest predators, the Paper Wasp.

Biological systems fascinate scientists across disciplines because of the highly complex structures that emerge from these systems, from cells to organisms and societies. While biological systems fulfil highly specialised tasks despite noisy signals, they can also rapidly break up these structures and perform entirely different tasks when the right signals are present. A new study in Cell Systems published by Steffen Rulands from MPI-PKS and CSBD in Dresden, Wolf Reik from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and Solenn Patalano from the BBSRC Alexander Fleming in Athens used paper wasps as a paradigmatic example.

Paper wasps are social insects that display societal division of labor between workers and a queen. While this division of labor remains stable for the entire lifetime of the queen, when the queen is removed from the nest or dies the remaining workers can rapidly change their behavior and establish a new queen. Due to this behavior the paper wasps serve an experimental testing ground to study biological plasticity.

Rulands and colleagues carried out a unique set of experiments in Panama where they removed the queen from paper wasp nests and then followed the reorganization process back to the intact society simultaneously on different scales of biological organization: from time-resolved profiling of brains using multi-omics of the brains to colony-level video recordings. Using theory, they showed that by balancing antagonistic molecular and colony-level processes these societies are able to distinguish between different kinds of perturbations affecting the nest: intrinsic perturbations, such as molecular noise, affect insects independently of each other and these perturbations are actively suppressed by the society. By contrast, extrinsic perturbations affect the entire society and the society reacts plasticly. Given the above, the authors conclude that by employing a self-organised multi-scale mechanism Polistes manages to overcome the seeming paradox between specialisation and plasticity.

Original Publication:

Solenn Patalano, Adolfo Alsina, Carlos Gregorio-Rodríguez, Martin Bachman, Stephanie Dreier, Irene Hernando-Herraez, Paulin Nana, Shankar Balasubramanian, Seirian Sumner, Wolf Reik, Steffen Rulands: "Self-organization of plasticity and specialization in a primitively social insect", Cell Systems (2022)