Gene Scan Tracks a Bee as She Grows Up
WASHINGTON - A honeybee turns on and off 40 percent of her genes as she matures from being a \"nurse\" to a forager in her short, busy life, U.S. researchers said yesterday.
The findings suggest that genes and behavior are more closely related than commonly believed - that nature and nurture are closely entwined, the researchers said.
\"Some of these changes are a result of growing up,\" said Gene Robinson, a professor of entomology and director of the Neuroscience Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the study.
\"About 40 percent of the genes change as the bee grows up and changes from taking care of baby bees in the hive to graduating and becoming a forager,\" Robinson added in a telephone interview.
\"These changes are so consistent from individual to individual that a computer program can look at the expression profiles and characterize the individual as a nurse bee or a forager.\"
Robinson, graduate student Charles Whitfield and colleague Anne-Marie Cziko analyzed 5,500 different active genes in honeybees for their study, published in the journal Science.
They created their own gene chip for the study - a plate on which chemicals react with active genetic products, glowing luminescently when exposed to certain lights.
They could track the development of 60 different bees as some genes switched off and others switched on.
\"The pace at which a bee grows up is based on its needs, its family, its colony,\" Robinson said.
Honeybees live in colonies dominated by females, with males used only for mating with the queen. The bees mature into new roles over a period of two to three weeks.
Nurse bees care for the young for their first two to three weeks of life, then shift to foraging for nectar and pollen. But if the colony is short of foragers, for example, some of the nurse bees will mature more quickly.
All of this happens fast. A honeybee typically lives just six weeks. \"They pretty much fly themselves to death,\" Robinson said.
Robinson said it is hard to know how much of this information translates to humans, who of course mature more slowly and in more complex ways than bees.
But on the genetic level, humans have plenty in common with bees.
Many of the genes they looked at have counterparts in humans and other animals. One example is the MAP kinase gene, which is involved in learning and memory. In bees, this gene becomes more active as they become foragers.
Story by Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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