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Geneticists Bid to Build a Better Bee

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By Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib for Nature magazine

For Scott Cornman, the honeybee genome is a prized resource, yet he spends much of his time removing it. Cornman, a geneticist for the Bee Research Laboratory of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland, is trying to characterize the various pathogens that plague the honeybee (Apis mellifera), arguably the world's most important insect. His strategy is to subtract the honeybee genome from every other stray bit of genetic residue he can find in bee colonies, healthy and diseased. The remaining genetic material gives a complex metagenomic portrait of other organisms that inhabit the bee's world, including viruses, bacteria and fungi--some novel--that, alone or in combination, might push a bee colony into precipitous decline.

"Right now we're in the discovery phase, where we're trying to identify what's present," says Cornman. "Then we can start looking at the interactions of pathogens and see if they're more virulent than any by themselves."

Cornman was among 100 or so researchers in attendance last week at the Honey Bee Genomics & Biology meeting, held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. It was the first dedicated conference on the topic since researchers met four years ago, soon after the honeybee genome was sequenced (Honeybee Genome Sequencing Consortium Nature 443, 931-949; 2006), and for many it was a chance to marvel at a field transformed.