Bees reveal nature-nuture secrets

November 2, 2010
A honeybee queen surrounded by her retinue. Image: Helga Heilmann. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000532.g001

The nature-nurture debate is a "giant step" closer to being resolved after scientists studying bees documented how environmental inputs can modify our genetic hardware. The researchers uncovered extensive molecular differences in the brains of worker bees and queen bees which develop along very different paths when put on different diets.

The research was led by Professor Ryszard Maleszka of The Australian National University's College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, working with colleagues from the German Cancer Institute in Heidelberg, Germany and will be published next week in the online, open access journal .

Their work reveals for the first time the intricacies of the environmentally-influenced chemical 'marking of DNA' called , which has the capacity to alter without affecting the – a process referred to as 'epigenetic', or above the genome.

"This marking determines which genes are to be fine-tuned in the brains of workers and queens to produce their extraordinarily different behaviours. This finding is not only crucial, but far reaching, because the enzymes that mark DNA in the bee are also the enzymes that mark DNA in human brains," said Professor Maleszka.

"In the , more than 550 genes are differentially marked between the brain of the queen and the of the worker, which contributes to their profound divergence in behaviour. This study provides the first documentation of extensive molecular differences that may allow honey bees to generate different reproductive and behavioural outcomes as a result of differential feeding with royal jelly."

Professor Maleszka said that the work goes a long way to answering one of life's biggest questions.

"This study represents a giant step towards answering one of the big questions in the nature-nurture debate, because it shows how the outside world is linked to DNA via diet, and how environmental inputs can transiently modify our genetic hardware," he said.

"Similar studies are impossible to do on human brains, so the humble honey bees are the pioneers in this fascinating area."

Explore further: Honey bee genome holds clues to social behavior

More information: Lyko F, Foret S, Kucharski R, Wolf S, Falckenhayn C, et al. (2010) The Honey Bee Epigenomes: Differential Methylation of Brain DNA in Queens and Workers. PLoS Biol 8(11): e1000506. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000506

Related Stories

Honey bee genome holds clues to social behavior

October 23, 2006

By studying the humble honey bee, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have come a step closer to understanding the molecular basis of social behavior in humans.

Honey bee chemoreceptors found for smell and taste

October 25, 2006

Honey bees have a much better sense of smell than fruit flies or mosquitoes, but a much worse sense of taste, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Royal jelly makes bee queens, boosts nurture case

March 14, 2008

New Australian National University research may explain why eating royal jelly destines honeybee larvae to become queens instead of workers – and in the process adds new weight to the role of environmental factors in the ...

The biochemical buzz on career changes in bees

April 6, 2009

Adults facing unexpected career changes, take note. Scientists from Brazil and Cuba are reporting that honey bees — a mainstay for behavioral research that cannot be done in other animals — change their brains before ...

Honey-bee aggression study suggests nurture alters nature

August 17, 2009

A new study reveals that changes in gene expression in the brain of the honey bee in response to an immediate threat have much in common with more long-term and even evolutionary differences in honey-bee aggression. The findings ...

Recommended for you

Research advances on transplant ward pathogen

August 28, 2015

The fungus Cryptococcus causes meningitis, a brain disease that kills about 1 million people each year—mainly those with impaired immune systems due to AIDS, cancer treatment or an organ transplant. It's difficult to treat ...

Genomes uncover life's early history

August 24, 2015

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms.

Rare nautilus sighted for the first time in three decades

August 25, 2015

In early August, biologist Peter Ward returned from the South Pacific with news that he encountered an old friend, one he hadn't seen in over three decades. The University of Washington professor had seen what he considers ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.