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Honey Bee Genome Sequenced

Finding may offer insight into bee behavior, even allergic disease

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 25, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists have decoded the genomic structure of the western honey bee, a finding that will give new insight into how these bees behave and where they came from.

So why should the average person care?

"Honey bees are the premier pollinators on Earth and play a vital role in our nation's economy and food supply," study co-author Gene Robinson, the G. William Arends Professor of Integrative Biology in the department of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a prepared statement. "Honey bees account for $10 billion to $20 billion of food produced in America alone, per year."

Honey bees are also valuable to scientists as models for research organisms, added Robinson, who's director of the university's Bee Research Facility. "In biology and biomedicine, honey bees are used to study many diverse areas, including allergic disease, development, gerontology, neuroscience, social behavior and venom toxicology," he said. "Because they live in intricate societies, we can view the traits that honey bees exhibit through a prism of extreme sociality."

Added study co-author Richard Gibbs, director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine: "There has been an interest in the honey bee as a scientific curiosity, because in addition to its agricultural importance and its role in human health, it has this elaborate social organization. The structure of the bee colony is of interest because of what it might tell us about human behavior."

The report is published in the Oct. 26 issue of Nature. In addition, a paper in the Oct. 27 issue of Science found that the regulation of genes in honey bees is more like the gene regulation of mammals, including humans, than it is like other insects, such as fruit flies.

Now that the honey bee gene sequence is known, it may be possible to see how genes evolved to account for bee behavior, Gibbs said. "We can begin to untangle the mystery of how these insects develop into this complex structure," he said. "It turns out that the honey bee is a little closer to us than other insects that have been analyzed. That's a surprise."

For example, honey bees have many more genes related to smell, compared with fruit flies or mosquitoes, but far fewer genes related to taste. The large number of odor receptors accounts for the honey bee's ability to communicate within the hive and to find food and communicate the location of food to other bees.

In terms of social behavior, a form of bee social pressure can cause nurse bees to become foragers in response to needs of the hive. This shift involves changes in thousands of genes in the honey bee brain, the researchers noted.

Knowing the honey bee's genetic code will turn studying these insects from an art into a science, Gibbs said. "With the complete code, we can see the complete ingredients you can use to make a honey bee," he said. "So now we can see how bees modify and change and develop the diverse functionality that different members of the hive have."

Another bee expert, Greg J. Hunt, an associate professor in the Department of Entomology at Purdue University, considers the study findings interesting because they highlight the genetic differences between honey bees and other insects, like fruit flies.

Hunt also said the changes in honey bee makeup brought on by the introduction of the African bee illustrate how genes have remade some basic characteristics of European honey bees.

Among other findings in the studies are that the honey bee originated in Africa and spread north to Europe. The western and northern European subspecies of honey bee was introduced to North America as early as 1622. In 1956, the African -- so-called "killer" -- bee was introduced to Brazil in an attempt to bolster honey production. Descendants of these African honey bees have since spread north and south, changing and displacing European honey bees.

In another paper in the same issue of Nature, Cornell University researchers report finding several pollen grains in the oldest bee fossil discovered to date. The fossil is 100 million years old and dates to the early Cretaceous period.

The fossil is of the tiny Melittosphex burmensis bee, which was only 2.95 millimeters long but had many traits of today's bees. This fossil suggests these bees may have contributed to the rapid diversification of flowering plants in the early to mid-Cretaceous period, the researchers said.

More information

For more on honey bees, visit the Great Plains Nature Center.

SOURCES: Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., director, Human Genome Sequencing Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; Greg J. Hunt, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Entomology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Oct. 26, 2006, Nature; Oct. 27, 2006, Science
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