Beyond royal jelly: Study identifies plant chemical that determines a honey bee's caste

August 28, 2015

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A closer look at how honey bee colonies determine which larvae will serve as workers and which will become queens reveals that a plant chemical, p-coumaric acid, plays a key role in the bees' developmental fate.

The study, reported in the journal Science Advances, shows that broad developmental changes occur when honey bee larvae - those destined to be workers - are switched from eating royal jelly (a glandular secretion) to a diet of jelly that includes honey and beebread (a type of processed pollen).

Beebread and honey contain p-coumaric acid, but royal jelly does not. Queens feed exclusively on royal jelly. Worker bees known as nurses feed the larvae according to the needs of the hive.

Experiments revealed that ingesting p-coumaric acid pushes the honey bee larvae down a different developmental pathway from those fed only royal jelly. Some genes, about a third of the honey bee genome, are upregulated and another third are downregulated, changing the landscape of proteins available to help fight disease or develop the bees' reproductive parts.

"Consuming the phytochemical p-coumaric acid, which is ubiquitous in beebread and honey, alters the expression of a whole suite of genes involved in caste determination," said University of Illinois entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum, who conducted the study with research scientist Wenfu Mao and cell and developmental biology professor Mary Schuler. "For years, people have wondered what components in royal jelly lead to queen development, but what might be more important is what isn't in royal jelly - plant chemicals that can interfere with development."

"While previous molecular studies have provided simple snapshots of the gene transcript variations that are associated with the exposure of insects to natural and synthetic chemicals, the genomics approaches used in this study offer a significantly more complex perspective on the biochemical and physiological processes occurring in plant-insect interactions," Schuler said.
-end-
The USDA Agricultural and Food Research Initiative supported this research.

Editor's notes:

To reach May Berenbaum, email maybe@illinois.edu.

To reach Mary Schuler, call 217-333-8784; email maryschu@illinois.edu

The paper "A dietary phytochemical alters caste determination gene expression in honey bees" is available from scipak@aaas.org.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Genes Articles from Brightsurf:

Are male genes from Mars, female genes from Venus?
In a new paper in the PERSPECTIVES section of the journal Science, Melissa Wilson reviews current research into patterns of sex differences in gene expression across the genome, and highlights sampling biases in the human populations included in such studies.

New alcohol genes uncovered
Do you have what is known as problematic alcohol use?

How status sticks to genes
Life at the bottom of the social ladder may have long-term health effects that even upward mobility can't undo, according to new research in monkeys.

Symphony of genes
One of the most exciting discoveries in genome research was that the last common ancestor of all multicellular animals already possessed an extremely complex genome.

New genes out of nothing
One key question in evolutionary biology is how novel genes arise and develop.

Good genes
A team of scientists from NAU, Arizona State University, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts and nine other institutions worldwide to study potential cancer suppression mechanisms in cetaceans, the mammalian group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises.

How lifestyle affects our genes
In the past decade, knowledge of how lifestyle affects our genes, a research field called epigenetics, has grown exponentially.

Genes that regulate how much we dream
Sleep is known to allow animals to re-energize themselves and consolidate memories.

The genes are not to blame
Individualized dietary recommendations based on genetic information are currently a popular trend.

Timing is everything, to our genes
Salk scientists discover critical gene activity follows a biological clock, affecting diseases of the brain and body.

Read More: Genes News and Genes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.