Honey Bee Genome Project – HBGP
Increased drug resistance by pathogenic bacteria has created an urgent demand for new antibiotics. Insects are among the more promising sources of novel antibiotics and honey bees likely offer a rich source because of their sociality. Usually, honey bees live in a social environment like humans with nearly-ideal conditions for growth and transmission of pathogens.
Humans show both antigen-specific and innate immune responses to important pathogens including Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Streptococcus pneumonia. A better understanding of innate immunity can help counter these diseases, especially when vaccines have limited effectiveness.
Honey bees protect their hive aggressively with both sophisticated behavioral and biochemical mechanisms. Bee venom has proved to work with a wide range of medically important and pharmacologically active compounds.
Honey bees are the foremost beneficial insect worldwide. While best known for honey, the honey bee’s more significant contribution to human nutrition is crop pollination, valued at nearly $15 billion/year in the US. Pollination increases the quantity and quality of fruits, nuts, and seeds, many of them increasingly recognized as sources of nutraceuticals. But parasites and pathogens compromise bee health and pollination activities. An HBGP will help to breed bees that resist disease and insecticides, pollinate more efficiently, but stingless.
Some types of mental illness, such as autism, involve problems with social integration. Bees illustrate a high degree of social integration, and their activities are highly dependent upon their ability to read social cues; identification of several well-defined sets of social cues make for unusually tractable experimental social systems.
An HBGP also may enhance the use of honey bees as environmental sentinels.
Mutations (the alteration of the nucleotide sequence of the genome of an organism, virus, or extrachromosomal DNA) on the X-chromosome are responsible for many serious conditions, including Turner’s syndrome, Trisomy-X, Kleinfelter’s syndrome, hemophilia, colorblindness, and fragile-X syndrome, the leading cause of mental retardation. Honey bees are “haplodiploid;” as each bee, the chromosome is an X-chromosome, i.e., one copy in the male and two copies in the female. An HBGP will enable comparative analyses to address questions such as: What control regions are important in gene expression, sexual development, and dosage compensation on the X? No haplodiploid animal has yet been sequenced.
The culture of honey bees and other social insects occupy Wilson’s second “pinnacle of social evolution,” with the complexity that rivals our own. Among the challenging similarities are extensive communication systems (including the only non-primate symbolic language); highly organized defense and warfare; complex architecture (including the insect equivalent of skyscrapers – 4-meter high termite nests in Africa); and expressions of personal sacrifice unheard of in most of the rest of the animal kingdom.
Bees accumulate nectar from flowers, a highly ephemeral food source, and have evolved sophisticated cognitive abilities to maximize foraging success. They are brilliant at associative learning, based on the need to associate a color, shape, scent, or location with a food reward. Honey bees also can learn theoretical concepts such as “similar” and “dissimilar,” and are able to negotiate complex mazes by using visual stimuli as direct or abstract “signposts” or by recognizing path irregularities.
Queens and their workers have identical genotypes but queens live two orders of magnitude longer. The implication of all differentially spoken genes responsible for these striking differences in lifespan, facilitated by an HBGP, undoubtedly has important implications for human longevity and aging.