Isobel Ronai

Location: Room 250, Macleay Building A12 | Phone: 02 9351 3642 | Email:

My Ph.D. project is on the genetic and mechanistic basis of worker sterility in the honey bee. In addition, I study philosophy of biology and more specifically philosophy of genetics. I started my Ph.D. in 2013 under the supervision of Prof. Ben Oldroyd (Behaviour and Genetics of Social Insects Laboratory) and Prof. Paul Griffiths (Theory and Method in Bioscience group).

Ph.D. research project

A photo of Isobel Ronai

The evolution of an ‘altruistic’ sterile worker caste remains a fundamental question for evolutionary biology as it requires the existence of genes that reduce personal reproduction. The molecular and developmental mechanisms regulating the sterility of the worker caste are still poorly understood. An important first step to solving the mystery is to identify the genes that regulate worker fertility and this is the aim of my PhD research project. Such a breakthrough is of major importance as it would provide a mechanistic understanding of an altruistic trait and help us to understand the evolution of eusociality.

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the model organism for studies into eusociality. Normally the presence of the queen, secreting her pheromones, inhibits ovary activation in workers. A mutant ‘anarchistic’ strain (in which the workers activate their ovaries and lay eggs despite the presence of a queen) of honey bee has proved to be an incisive tool for identifying a short list of candidate genes that regulate oogenesis in the worker. Of these genes, Anarchy, is the most promising for regulating worker sterility. I am currently characterising Anarchy.

This interdisciplinary Ph.D. project also includes philosophy of genetics. Building on work undertaken during my Joint Honours project I will extend my conceptual analysis of the concept of ‘the gene’ and investigate mechanisms in molecular biology. My focus on research practice within biology, allows me to contextualise my experimental research.


  • Ronai, I., Vergoz, V. and Oldroyd, B.P. (2016). The mechanistic, genetic and evolutionary basis of worker sterility in the social Hymenoptera. Advances in the Study of Behaviour 48, 251-317.
  • Ronai, I., Oldroyd, B.P., Barton, D.A., Cabanes, G., Lim, J., and Vergoz, V. (2016). Anarchy is a molecular signature of worker sterility in the honey bee. Molecular Biology and Evolution 33, 134-142.
  • Ronai, I., Barton, D.A., Oldroyd, B.P., and Vergoz, V. (2015). Regulation of oogenesis in honey bee workers via programed cell death. Journal of Insect Physiology 81, 36-41.
  • Ronai, I., Oldroyd, B.P., and Vergoz, V. (accepted). Queen pheromone regulates programmed cell death in the honey bee worker ovary. Insect Molecular Biology.