Silks are strong protein fibers produced by a broad array of spiders and insects. The vast majority of known silks are large, repetitive proteins assembled into extended β-sheet structures. Honeybees, however, have found a radically different evolutionary solution to the need for a building material. The 4 fibrous proteins of honeybee silk are small (∼30 kDa each) and nonrepetitive and adopt a coiled coil structure. We examined silks from the 3 superfamilies of the Aculeata (Hymenoptera: Apocrita) by infrared spectroscopy and found coiled coil structure in bees (Apoidea) and in ants (Vespoidea) but not in parasitic wasps of the Chrysidoidea. We subsequently identified and sequenced the silk genes of bumblebees, bulldog ants, and weaver ants and compared these with honeybee silk genes. Each species produced orthologues of the 4 small fibroin proteins identified in honeybee silk. Each fibroin contained a continuous predicted coiled coil region of around 210 residues, flanked by 23-160 residue length N- and C-termini. The cores of the coiled coils were unusually rich in alanine. There was extensive sequence divergence among the bee and ant silk genes (<50% similarity between the alignable regions of bee and ant sequences), consistent with constant and equivalent divergence since the bee/ant split (estimated to be 155 Myr). Despite a high background level of sequence diversity, we have identified conserved design elements that we propose are essential to the assembly and function of coiled coil silks.
- Coiled coils
- Social insects