Protein-level interactions as mediators of sexual conflict in ants

Ryan Dosselli, Julia Grassl, Susanne P A den Boer, Madlen Kratz, Jessica M Moran, Jacobus J Boomsma, Boris Baer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


All social insects with obligate reproductive division of labour evolved from strictly monogamous ancestors, but multiple queen-mating (polyandry) arose de novo in several evolutionarily derived lineages. Polyandrous ant queens are inseminated soon after hatching and store sperm mixtures for a potential reproductive life of decades. However, they cannot re-mate later in life and are thus expected to control the loss of viable sperm because their life-time reproductive success is ultimately sperm-limited. In the leaf-cutting ant Atta colombica, the survival of newly inseminated sperm is known to be compromised by seminal fluid of rival males and to be protected by secretions of the queen sperm storage organ (spermatheca). Here we investigate the main protein-level interactions that appear to mediate sperm competition dynamics and sperm preservation. We conducted an artificial insemination experiment and DIGE-based proteomics to identify proteomic changes when seminal fluid is exposed to spermathecal fluid, and then a mass spectrometry analysis of both secretions that allowed us to identify the sex-specific origins of the proteins that had changed in abundance. We found that spermathecal fluid targets only seven (2%) of the identified seminal fluid proteins for degradation, including two proteolytic serine proteases, a SERPIN inhibitor, and a semen-liquefying acid phosphatase. In vitro and in vivo experiments provided further confirmation that these proteins are key molecules mediating sexual conflict over sperm competition and viability preservation during sperm storage. Exposure to spermathecal fluid reduced the capacity of seminal fluid to compromise survival of rival sperm in a matter of hours and biochemical inhibition of these seminal fluid proteins largely eliminated that adverse effect. Our findings indicate that A. colombica queens are in control of sperm competition and sperm storage, a capacity that has not been documented in other animals, but is predicted to have independently evolved in other polyandrous social insects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S34-S45
Number of pages39
JournalMolecular & Cellular Proteomics
Early online date31 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


Dive into the research topics of 'Protein-level interactions as mediators of sexual conflict in ants'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this