What's the buzz?
- October 26, 2006 5:23 PM |
- By Quirks
To bee, or not to bee? That was the question five years ago some scientists found themselves asking. And now, emerging from a hive of activity, the honey of an answer has emerged. And it has scientists buzzing with excitement.
This week, the latest complete genome sequence was announced: the genome of the honeybee. It was considered important enough to be the cover story for the journal Nature, and the journal Science published a number of articles on honeybee genes, lifting its press embargo a day early in order to coincide with Nature’s publication.
But the honeybee genome is worth all the fuss. This insect remains fundamental to our modern society. Even with all our technology, we still rely on insects to pollinate our crops. Despite their importance, or perhaps because of it, bees are under a lot of pressure from diseases today. Bee mites are considered a particular problem, and research programs around the world are looking for ways to control these parasites.
According to Dr. Mark Winston from Simon Fraser University, this is one place where the genome could prove useful. Understanding the genetics of the honeybee will give researchers clues about how to breed bees that are more resistant to the mites. Another use for the genome is to help breed bees that are resistant to pesticides, allowing better control of other pests in the field. There’s even the potential to develop bees that are better pollinators, reducing our need for hives.
Beyond their industrial interests, bees are also extremely valuable as research animals. As most of us learned in grade school, the honeybee is a highly social creature. It’s this feature that has many researchers interested in its genome.
The behaviour of bees is not just complex, with bees performing different jobs at different points in their lives, but the environment also plays a role in when bees change their behaviour. Now, with the genome, scientists are already starting to figure out some of the mechanisms behind behaviour. This may act as a good model for understanding our own behaviour. It’s certainly a simpler system, as bee brains contain one million neurons, compared to our hundred billion, and bees don’t have the same social influences on development that humans do. But many of the genetic pathways are similar, offering hope for human research.
So, the buzz is justified. This small insect, which first started to emerge in Africa somewhere around a hundred million years ago, isn’t just the keystone in our food supply, it may also help supply the key to unlocking the human mind.
— Pat Senson
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