November 3, 2006

Buzzing About the Honey Bee Genome

Newly emerged honey bee Newly emerged honey beePeggy Greb, United States Department of Agriculture.

It’s not just their importance for agriculture that makes honey bees so interesting for scientists. Honey bees have tiny brains, and yet they manage to have complex social structures. Researchers have now completed sequencing the genome of the honey bee to get some insights into these fascinating insects.

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. Dr. George Weinstock, co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine, led the Honey Bee Genome Consortium in its effort to complete the draft genome sequence of the western honey bee, Apis mellifera. The effort was supported by NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other NIH components. The analysis team consisted of more than 170 investigators representing nearly 100 research groups from 13 countries.

The researchers described the approximately 260 million DNA base pair genome of the honey bee in the Oct. 26 issue of Nature. Over 40 other companion manuscripts with further detailed analyses are appearing in Insect Molecular Biology, Genome Research, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and other journals.

The honey bee is the third insect to have its genome sequenced and analyzed. The genome of the malaria-carrying mosquito (Anopheles gambiae) was completed in 2002 and that of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), which is commonly used in genetics research, was completed in 2000. The honey bee genome shows greater similarities to vertebrates like humans than these other insects for genes involved in circadian rhythm as well as for the biological processes involved in turning genes on or off.

“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 Dr. Francis S. Collins.

Among other interesting findings, researchers discovered nine genes in the “royal jelly protein family” that appear in the honey bee genome but not the mosquito genome. Royal jelly proteins are produced by glands in the head of adult worker bees and are an important nutritional component in queen and brood care. The proteins are vital in the early development of a honey bee and help determine whether it becomes a queen or an altruistic worker.

Collins said “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.”

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