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Three researchers to take part in mapping the honeybee genome


Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
(217) 333-5802;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A buzz being heard around the entomology department these days is a genomic celebration. Three departmental researchers will have key roles in a recently announced federal project to map the some 15,000 genes of a honeybee (Apis mellifera).

The work, to be done at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is the brainchild of Gene Robinson, a professor of entomology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Robinson, the head of the university's bee research program, and colleagues Hugh Robertson and Susan Fahrbach were part of a group that proposed the project to the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

"The information that we can gain from this project will dramatically enhance the value of the honeybee as a model for studies of how genes influence social behavior, brain function, host-pathogen relations, and a host of other factors," Robinson said.

The honeybee was among the next group of organisms named by the NHGRI as high priority for sequencing. Current institute projects involving the human, mouse and rat genomes are nearing completion. In addition to the honeybee, other new high-priority organisms are the chicken, chimpanzee, various species of fungi, a sea urchin and Tetrahymena, a microscopic creature often used in laboratory studies.

No set timetable was established for the new projects, although Robinson said the honeybee work could begin late this year at Baylor's Human Genome Sequencing Center.

In its announcement, the NHGRI noted that honeybee has "powerful social instincts and unique behavioral traits" of interest to neurobiologists. The bee also pollinates agricultural crops and offers insight on human problems such as antibiotic resistance, immunity, allergic reaction, mental health and genetic diseases, the NHGRI noted.

Robinson and Fahrbach have been involved in studies directly related to several aspects noted by the institute, specifically behavioral traits and brain functioning.

Robertson will coordinate the effort to annotate the genome, that is, determine the gene structures, amino acid sequences and protein activities encoded by the bee genome. His participation will begin after initial sequencing is completed at Baylor.

Robinson organized a proposal for the honeybee beginning last year, after the NHGRI invited scientists to identify organisms whose genomes may prove to be beneficial for research. A peer review system chose which organisms would be high priority.

In the paper, Robinson and colleagues noted that, "Though phylogenetically distant, honeybees live in societies that rival our own in complexity, internal cohesion, and success in dealing with the myriad challenges posed by social life, including those related to communication, aging, social dysfunction and infectious disease."