There’s more to bees than honey

By October 26th, 2006

Winnie the Pooh thought the only reason for being a bee was to make honey, but CSIRO Entomology scientists with their Australian and international colleagues have shown there’s much more to bees.

The findings from the Honey Bee Genome Sequencing Project are published today in ‘Insights into social insects from the genome of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature.  CSIRO scientists were part of the international consortium, with Visiting Fellow at CSIRO Entomology Dr Charles Claudianos leading one of the teams.

Valuable information is now available to scientists to study characteristics associated with the genome.

“This is the first sequencing of a social organism other than a human being,” Dr Claudianos says.

“We can compare the sequences from various genomes of different organisms and we can put human biology into that context.”

Other science journals are simultaneously publishing papers based on the international Honey Bee Genome Sequencing Project.  CSIRO scientists are authors of papers on several subjects including sensitivity to insecticides, crop pollination, bee silk and telomeres. 

The sequencing of the genome has given insights into why honeybees are sensitive to insecticides. Research by Dr Claudianos, CSIRO’s Dr John Oakeshott and colleagues in the United Kingdom, the United States and France has uncovered a possible cause.

In their paper, ‘A deficit of detoxification enzymes: pesticide sensitivity and environmental response in the honeybee’ in Insect Molecular Biology, they reveal that the honeybee genome has fewer protein coding genes than other insects that have been studied.

And some of the most marked differences occur in groups of detoxifying enzymes associated with insecticide resistance in other species.

CSIRO’s Dr Saul Cunningham and colleagues in Germany, France and the United States studied crop pollination by the European honey bee and their paper, ‘Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops’, is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

CSIRO research has revealed the honeybee as the first insect that has a system similar to humans.

“While we knew that bee pollination was vital in global crop production, we had no idea of the extent of this reliance,” Dr Cunningham says.

The research has also confirmed that one in three mouthfuls of food comes from insect pollinated crops.

A team of CSIRO researchers has discovered that the proteins of bee silk, unlike the silk of spiders and silkworms, are small and non-repetitive. This means bee silk is considerably more amenable to artificial production than the silk proteins of silkworm and spiders. The group has identified the honeybee fibre genes and their results have just been published in, Genome Research – ‘A highly divergent gene cluster in honeybees encodes a novel silk family’.

“Silk is an exceptionally strong material and many groups are vying to make the first artificial silk,” lead author Dr Tara Sutherland says. “Most people are unaware that honeybees produce silk but they do and we have studied it.”

Now the honeybee has been identified as the first insect that has a system similar to humans, CSIRO’s Dr Karl Gordon and a colleague in the United States have described the telomeres in honey bees and identified the gene for telomerase. Their paper ‘Canonical TTAGG-repeat telomeres and telomerase in the honey bee Apis mellifera’ has just appeared in Genome Research.

Telomeres protect the end of chromosomes. In humans, the enzyme telomerase replenishes the telomeres early in development.  Shutting down of the telomerase activity later in development results in telomere shortening during ageing. One important change in cancer cells is that the telomerase is no longer shut down, allowing unlimited cell division. The behaviour of telomerase is also critical for the survival of cloned animals.

The discovery of a simple telomere system in the honeybee allows study of the role of telomerase in the very different ageing of the three bee castes.

The Honey Bee Genome Sequencing Project was made up of members from university laboratories throughout the world, the US Department of Agriculture bee laboratories, and the United States bee industry. It was principally funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute in the United States.

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Fast facts

  • As part of a collaborative effort, CSIRO Entomology scientists have uncovered valuable information as part of the Honey Bee Genome Sequencing Project

  • Scientists can now study characteristics associated with the honey bee genome

  • Using the honey bee genome sequence, CSIRO scientists have published valuable research findings on honey bee sensitivity to insecticides, crop pollination, bee silk and telomeres