|Scientists Publish Analysis of Honey Bee Genome
Social Insect Creates Buzz for Agricultural, Biomedical Research
Bethesda, Md. — A research consortium,
supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI),
one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), today announced
the publication of a high-quality draft genome sequence of the
western honey bee, finding that its genome is more similar to humans
than any insect sequenced thus far.
The honey bee’s social behavior makes it an important model for
understanding how genes regulate behavior through the development
of the brain and central nervous system. That may lead to important
insights into common mental and brain disorders, such as depression
or schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, the bee genome
may also provide an important window into immunity and aging.
In a paper published in the Oct. 26 issue of Nature,
the Honey Bee Genome Consortium, led by Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., director
of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine
(BCM-HGSC) in Houston, describes the approximately 260 million
DNA base pair genome of the honey bee (Apis mellifera).
Over 40 other companion manuscripts describing further detailed
analyses are in current issues of Insect Molecular Biology,
Genome Research, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (USA), and other journals.
Although only 9 percent the size of the 3 billion base pairs in
the human genome, the honey bee contains nearly half as many genes
as the human genome, more than 10,000 in the bee compared to around
20,000 genes in the human.
The honey bee is the third insect to have its genome sequenced
and analyzed. The malaria-carrying mosquito (Anopheles gambiae)
was completed in 2002 and the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster),
an extensively used model organism in genetics research, was completed
in 2000. The honey bee genome is 50 percent larger than fruit flies
but contains roughly the same number of genes. Sequencing of the
honey bee genome began in early 2003. NHGRI provided about $6.9
million in funding for the project and the U.S. Department of Agriculture
contributed $750,000. Additional support was provided by the National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National
Library of Medicine (NLM), both components of the NIH.
“Comparing the genome of the honey bee with other species separated
over evolutionary time from humans has provided us with powerful
insights into the complex biological processes that have evolved
over hundreds of millions of years,” said NHGRI Director Francis
S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “The genome of the honey bee has been added
to a growing list of organisms whose sequence can be compared side
by side to better understand the structure and functions of our
own genes. And that will help speed our understanding of how genes
contribute to health and what goes wrong in illness.”
In the analysis, the researchers report that the honey bee has
evolved more slowly than the fruit fly or mosquito and contains
10,157 known genes. Researchers caution that this gene count will
increase as other insects are sequenced and compared to the honey
bee in the future.
When compared to other insects, the honey bee genome contains
fewer genes involved in innate immunity, detoxification enzymes,
and gustatory (taste) receptors, while not surprisingly, it contains
more genes for olfactory receptors and novel genes for nectar and
pollen utilization. Interestingly, the honey bee genome shows greater
similarities to vertebrates than insects for genes involved in
circadian rhythm, as well as biological processes involved in turning
genes on or off.
Other findings from the Nature paper include
- Researchers discovered nine genes in the “royal jelly protein
family” which appear in the honey bee genome but not the mosquito
genome. These genes have gained new functions through evolution
and are believed to contribute to the sociality of the honey
bee. Royal jelly is produced by glands in the head of adult worker
bees and an important nutritional component in queen and brood
care. This process is vital in the early development of a honey
bee and determines whether it becomes a queen or an altruistic
- All organisms’ genomes contain common types of transposons,
small DNA sequences that move around in a genome that can cause
mutations, but there are substantially fewer transposons in the
honey bee genome. To understand why honey bee has so few transposons,
researchers will need to obtain genomes from insects more closely
related to honey bee than the insect genomes that already have
- While the honey bee shares similar genes with other insects
in developmental pathways, there is a dramatic difference in
how these genes influence sex determination, brain function and
- In most organisms, high fertility is achieved at the expense
of lifespan. This process is regulated by a gene for insulin-like
growth factor. However, researchers discovered that queen honey
bees are able to achieve high fertility without affecting their
lifespan. Future experiments studying this biological pathway
could uncover how this process has been modified in the honey
bee giving insights into human reproduction and human aging.
In addition to its value as a resource for comparative genomics,
the honey bee is widely used in agricultural and biomedical research.
The honey bee is valued by farmers for its ability to produce honey
and pollinate crops. Besides its importance in agriculture, the
honey bee serves as a model organism for studying human health
issues including immunity, allergic reaction, antibiotic resistance,
development, mental health, longevity and diseases of the X chromosome.
The honey bee is also studied for its social instincts and behavioral
After assembly of the genome at the BCM-HGSC, the center led an
analysis team of more than 170 investigators representing nearly
100 research groups from 13 countries. Researchers deposited the
initial assembly in 2004, based on 7.5-fold sequence coverage of
the honey bee genome, into the NIH-run, public database, GenBank
In turn, Genbank distributed the sequence data to the European
Molecular Biology Laboratory’s Nucleotide Sequence Database, EMBL-Bank
and the DNA Data Bank of Japan, DDBJ (www.ddbj.nig.ac.jp).
For more information on the field of comparative genomics, go
A high-resolution photo of the honey bee is available at: http://www.genome.gov/Images/press_photos/highres/76-300.jpg.
For additional information on the honey bee genome assembly, contact:
National Human Genome Research Institute
Baylor College of Medicine, Human Genome Sequencing Center
United States Department of Agriculture
Sandy Miller Hays
NHGRI, NIAID, and NLM are three of the 27 institutes and centers
at NIH, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The NHGRI Division of Extramural Research supports grants for
research and for training and career development at sites nationwide.
Information about NHGRI can be found at: www.genome.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.