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Secrets revealed in sequencing
of honey bee genome
E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
G. William Arends Professor of Integrative
Biology, spearheaded the effort to
sequence the honey bee genome.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — What do fruit flies, mosquitoes, silk moths
and honey bees have in common? First, they are all insects. Second,
they have all had their genomes sequenced, a feat that will make it
much easier to discern both similarities and differences.
The honey bee (Apis mellifera) has just joined this elite
club. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
along with scientists at other institutions, have already begun probing
the honey bee genome for its many secrets. The primary discoveries
found so far are presented in the Oct. 26 issue of Nature, and in other
Why sequence the honey bee genome?
“Honey bees are the premier pollinators on Earth, and play a vital role
in our nation’s economy and food supply,” said Gene Robinson, the
G. William Arends Professor of Integrative Biology in the department of entomology at Illinois, and director of the U. of I. Bee Research Facility. “Honey
bees account for 10 to 20 billion dollars of food produced in America alone,
per year,” he
Honey bees are also very valuable to scientists as model research organisms. “In
biology and biomedicine, honey bees are used to study many diverse
areas, including allergic disease, development, gerontology, neuroscience,
social behavior and venom toxicology,” Robinson said. “Because
they live in intricate societies, we can view the traits that honey
bees exhibit through a prism of extreme sociality.”
The Honey Bee Genome Project originated in 1999 when Robinson and Daniel
Weaver, a commercial beekeeper in Texas, joined forces to pitch the
project. Robinson organized the academic community, while Weaver sought
support from the bee industry.
With funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, the sequencing began in December 2002, and was performed
by George Weinstock and colleagues at the Human Genome Sequencing Center
at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
To sequence a genome, researchers first extract the DNA and break it
into tiny pieces. Each of those pieces of genetic material is then
sequenced. Lastly, an elaborate computational process puts the pieces
back together in correct order.
“It often takes time to translate a genome sequence into results of major
scientific import,” said Robinson, who is also a researcher at the university’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science
and Technology and a theme leader at
the university’s Institute for Genomic
Biology. “However, already
some tantalizing findings have emerged that help us better understand the honey
Among the major findings:
• The honey bee originated in Africa and spread into Europe by at least
two ancient migrations. In the New World, introductions of the western and
northern European subspecies began in North America as early as 1622. In 1956,
the African “killer” bee was introduced to Brazil in an attempt
to increase honey production. Descendants of these African honey bees have
spread northward and southward, hybridizing with and displacing previously
introduced European honey bees.
• Honey bees have many more genes related to smell, compared with fruit
flies or mosquitoes, but far fewer genes related to taste. The enhanced number
of odorant receptors underlies the honey bee’s remarkable olfactory abilities,
including perception of pheromones, kin recognition signals, and social communication
within the hive. A large number of odorant receptors also allows the bees to
find food and communicate the location of it to other bees.
• Researchers found clues for social cues, a form of bee pressure
that can cause nurse bees to become foragers in response to needs of
the hive. The job shift involves changes in thousands of genes in the
honey bee brain; some genes turn on, while others turn off. A few “master
regulator” genes known to function in the development of fruit
flies have been implicated in regulating the activity of these thousands
of genes. It appears that master regulator genes involved in nervous-system
development in fruit flies are re-used by nature for behavioral functions
in adult honey bees.
These early findings hint at the wealth of knowledge to be gained through
further study of the honey bee genome, Robinson said. “The honey
bee genome project is ushering in a bright era of bee research, for
the benefit of agriculture, biological research and human health.”
Editor’s note: To reach Gene Robinson,
call 217-333-6843; e-mail: email@example.com.