Researchers identify new components of the epigenetic 'code' for honey bee development

December 11, 2012

Researchers from the UK and Australia have uncovered a new element of the honeybee's genetic makeup, which may help to explain why bees are so sensitive to environmental changes.

Scientists from the University of Sheffield, Queen Mary, University of London and the Australian National University, have found that honeybees have a 'histone code' - a series of marks on the histone proteins around which their DNA is wrapped in order to fit into the nucleus of a cell. This code is known to exist in humans and other complex organisms in order to control changes in cell development - but this is the first time it's been discovered in the honeybee. Histone codes can also be affected by nutrition and environmental factors, so the scientists believe the finding may be another part of the puzzle to explain how eating royal jelly ensures honeybee larvae turn into queens and not workers.

"The development of different bees from the same DNA in the larvae is one of the clearest examples of epigenetics in action - mechanisms that go beyond the basic DNA sequence," explains Dr Mark Dickman from the University of Sheffield's Faculty of Engineering. "From our knowledge of how the histone code works in other organisms, we think that the marks on the histone proteins might act as one of the switches that control how the larvae develop."

The scientists believe their findings will open the door to further study of the interplay between environment, nutrition and how the honey bee develops. The first step will be to identify exactly how larval diet influences the histone code to ensure development into either a queen or a sterile worker.

But the potential impact is much wider, as Dr Paul Hurd, from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, explains; "Indirect dietary-mediated effects are also of particular relevance to insect pollinators. Prime examples are from systemic pesticides used on agricultural crops, which accumulate inside nectar and pollen and therefore enter honey bee diet, in some cases with detrimental effect. By studying the impact of diet and particular chemicals on the histone code during honey bee development and behaviour, we may be able to identify how certain pesticides contribute to the decline of some colonies."

Professor Maleszka of the Australian National University adds; "We really need to begin looking beyond classical genetics to understand many of the current problems honey bees face including Colony Collapse Disorder. There are rarely single genes that cause a given disease; it's more often interactions between a number of genes that's heavily influenced by environmental factors. Histone codes are flexible and have the capacity to act as an interface between genome and environment".
-end-
The work is published in the latest issue of Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and was supported in the UK by the Royal Society and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and by the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council.

Notes to editors:

1. Extensive histone post-translational modification in honey bees by Mark J. Dickman, Robert Kucharski, Ryszard Maleszka, and Paul J. Hurd is in press and due to appear in a future issue of Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.It is published online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ibmb.2012.11.003

2. Mark Dickman is from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Sheffield. Paul Hurd is from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. Robert Kucharski and Ryszard Maleszka are from the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University.

3. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield - the 2011 Times Higher Education's University of the Year - is one of the largest in the UK. Its seven departments include over 4,000 students and 900 staff and have research-related income worth more than £50M per annum from government, industry and charity sources. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) confirmed that two thirds of the research carried out was either Internationally Excellent or Internationally Leading.

The Faculty of Engineering has a long tradition of working with industry including Rolls-Royce, Network Rail and Siemens. Its industrial successes are exemplified by the award-winning Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the new £25 million Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC). The Faculty of Engineering is set to ensure students continue to benefit from world-class labs and teaching space through the provision of the University's new Engineering Graduate School. This brand new building, which will become the centre of the faculty´s postgraduate research and postgraduate teaching activities, will be sited on the corner of Broad Lane and Newcastle Street. It will form the first stage in a 15 year plan to improve and extend the existing estate in a bid to provide students with the best possible facilities while improving their student experience.

To find out more about the Faculty of Engineering, visit: http://www.shef.ac.uk/faculty/engineering/

4. Queen Mary, University of London is one of the UK's leading research-focused higher education institutions with some 16,900 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

A member of the Russell Group, it is amongst the largest of the colleges of the University of London. Queen Mary's 3,800 staff deliver world class degree programmes and research across 21 academic departments and institutes, within three Faculties: Science and Engineering; Humanities and Social Sciences; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

The College has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries. Queen Mary has an annual turnover of £300m, research income worth £70m, and generates employment and output worth £600m to the UK economy each year.

5. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.

University of Sheffield

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