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University of Vermont Theses & Dissertations

Nguyen, Andrew D.
Evolutionary Innovations in Ants to Thermally Stressful Environments
Temperature is a fundamental environmental force shaping species abundance and distributions through its effects on biochemical reaction rates, metabolism, activity, and reproduction. In light of future climate shifts, mainly driven by temperature increases, how will organisms persist in warmer environments? One molecular mechanism that may play an important role in coping with heat stress is the heat shock response (HSR), which protects against molecular damage. To prevent and repair protein damage specifically, Hsps activate and become up-regulated. However, the functional diversity and relevance of heat shock proteins (Hsps) in extending upper thermal limits in taxonomic groups outside marine and model systems is poorly understood. Ants are a good system to understand the physiological mechanisms for coping with heat stress because they have successfully diversified into thermally stressful environments. To identify and characterize the functional diversity of Hsps in ants, I surveyed Hsp orthologues from published ant genomes to test for signatures of positive selection and to reconstruct their evolutionary history. Within Hymenoptera, ants utilize unique sets of Hsps for the HSR. Stabilizing selection was the prevailing force among Hsp orthologues, suggesting that protein activity is conserved. At the same time, regulatory regions (promoters) governing transcriptional up-regulation diversified: species differ in the number and location of heat shock elements (HSEs). Therefore, Hsp expression patterns may be a target for selection in warm environments. I tested whether Hsp expression corresponded with variation in upper thermal limits in forest ant species within the genus Aphaenogaster. Whole colonies were collected throughout the eastern United States and were lab acclimated. There was a positive relationship between upper thermal limits (Critical Thermal maxima, CTmax) and local temperature extremes. Upper thermal limits were also higher in ant species that lived in open habitats (shrub-oak and long-leaf pine savannah) than species occupying closed habitats (deciduous forest). Ant species with higher CTmax expressed Hsps more slowly, at higher temperatures, and at higher maximum levels than those with low CTmax. Because Hsps sense and repair molecular damage, these results suggest the proteomes of open relative to closed canopy forests are more stable. Although deciduous forest ant species may be buffered from temperature stress, it is likely that temperature interacts with other environmental stressors such as water and nutrient availability that may impact upper thermal limits. I measured the influence of dehydration and nutrition stress on upper thermal limits of forest ants from a single population. Ants that were initially starved were much less thermally tolerant than controls and ants that were initially desiccated. Because ants are likely to experience similar combination of stressors in the wild, upper thermal limits may be severely overestimated in single factor experiments. Therefore, realistic forecasting models need to consider multiple environmental stressors. Overall, adaptive tuning of Hsp expression that reflects better protection and tolerance of protein unfolding may have facilitated ant diversification into warm environments. However, additional stressors and mechanisms may constrain the evolution of upper thermal limits.

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