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Scientists Publish Analysis of Honey Bee Genome

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A research consortium, supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has announced the publication of a high-quality draft genome sequence of the western honey bee, finding that its genome is more similar to humans than any insect sequenced thus far.

The honey bee's social behavior makes it an important model for understanding how genes regulate behavior through the development of the brain and central nervous system.

That may lead to important insights into common mental and brain disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia or Alzheimer's disease. 

Moreover, the bee genome may also provide an important window into immunity and aging.

In a paper published in the Oct. 26 issue of "Nature", the Honey Bee Genome Consortium, led by Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM-HGSC) in Houston, describes the approximately 260 million DNA base pair genome of the honey bee (Apis mellifera).

Over 40 other companion manuscripts describing further detailed analyses are in current issues of "Insect Molecular Biology, Genome Research, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA)", and other journals.

"Comparing the genome of the honey bee with other species separated over
evolutionary time from humans has provided us with powerful insights into the complex biological processes that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years," said NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

"The genome of the honey bee has been added to a growing list of organisms whose sequence can be compared side by side to better understand the structure and functions of our own genes."

"And that will help speed our understanding of how genes contribute to health and what goes wrong in illness."

In the analysis, the researchers report that the honey bee has evolved more slowly than the fruit fly or mosquito and contains 10,157 known genes.

Researchers caution that this gene count will increase as other insects are sequenced and compared to the honey bee in the future.

When compared to other insects, the honey bee genome contains fewer genes involved in innate immunity, detoxification enzymes, and gustatory (taste) receptors, while not surprisingly, it contains more genes for olfactory receptors and novel genes for nectar and pollen utilization.

Interestingly, the honey bee genome shows similarities to vertebrates than insects for genes involved in circadian rhythm, as well as biological processes involved in turning genes on or off.

Other findings from the "Nature" paper include

- Researchers discovered nine genes in the "royal jelly protein family" which appear in the honey bee genome but not the mosquito genome.

These genes have gained new functions through evolution and are believed to
contribute to the sociality of the honey bee.

- All organisms' genomes contain common types of transposons, small DNA sequences that move around in a genome that can cause mutations, but there are substantially fewer transposons in the honey bee genome.

To understand why honey bee has so few transposons, researchers will need
to obtain genomes from insects more closely related to honey bee than the insect genomes that already have been studied.

- While the honey bee shares similar genes with other insects in developmental pathways, there is a dramatic difference in how these genes influence sex determination, brain function and behavior.

- In most organisms, high fertility is achieved at the expense of lifespan. This process is regulated by a gene for insulin-like growth factor.

However, researchers discovered that queen honey bees are able to achieve high fertility without affecting their lifespan.

Future experiments studying this biological pathway could uncover how this process has been modified in the honey bee giving insights into human reproduction and human aging.