Expressing Genes

honeybee dna

A Honey Bee and her Gene Expression

What the heck is Gene Expression? Researchers working at the University of Illinois are tricking honey bees in order to learn about something called Gene Expression. As if the poor bugs don’t have enough to worry about, scientists are fooling the bees into thinking they have traveled farther through a tunnel leading to food if the tunnel’s walls are painted with tightly spaced stripes. I can imagine the poor bee: “Almost there, almost there, almost there…” as the scientists madly squeeze the little stripes closer and closer together. Actually, it sounds like a fun experiment. Here is the real key part of the research – tricking honey bees into thinking they have flown a long distance (when they actually haven’t) alters gene expression in their brains. You know that genes carry information from one generation to the next. That explains why both your neighbour and his son drag their knuckles on the ground when they walk among humans. But genes also provide information to your body on how to produce proteins and RNA. Those are important for determining how the body’s cells react to stress and change, among other things. Recently, scientists have found bugs are good models to study gene expression. One example, from research at Purdue, gene expression in termites is being studied to see how the insects digest wood. They investigated over 10,000 gene sequences in a study that might lead to using wood as a bio-fuel (in a different way than throwing another log on the fire, I suppose).

Bees and Genes. Last year, researchers showed how changing jobs within the hive results in a genetic change in each individual bee – all the way down to the DNA level. A paper by B.R. Herb in Nature Neuroscience showed how bee behaviour effects the chemicals hanging around DNA and changes their activity. The research team particularly found gene expression modified when foraging bees were forced to work as nurse bees. So did a similar joint study by Tempe’s Arizona State University Gro Amdam and John Hopkins University’s Andrew Feinberg. Gene Robinson, the scientist who did the bee-tunnel research (which is a different attack on understanding gene expression) points out that in the case of foragers doing nurse bee duties, we can’t be sure of the causal link – the research does not necessarily prove that epigenetic mechanisms cause behavioural differences.

The experiment and what it means for you and your twin sister in Kansas: Since honey bees do their famous waggle-tail figure-eight communication dance at the end of a foraging trip, the researchers made a tunnel lengthy enough that the stripes confused the foraging bee about her distance of travel. After reaching a pot of gold, or probably honey, at the other end of the tunnel, the forager raced back to the hive where she did her dance to tell other bees where to go – and crucially, how far to fly. Some lucky grad student probably got the job of watching the bee dance and making scientific notes about it. Then, I suppose, a delicate lobotomy had to be performed to see what genes were modified, or ‘expressed’ and how that compared with control-group bees. This study was led by entomology professor Gene Robinson, and paid for in part by the National Science Foundation. The ultimate result is to help us understand a huge range of behavioural traits related to changes in the way genes synthesis proteins and other chemicals that effect biology. The long-term result could be a better understanding of addiction and behaviour disorders in humans. And an explanation of why identical twins may be so different in personality, even when genes are identical at birth.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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