Friday, 14 March 2008 21:05

Get a big buzz from royal jelly and become a Queen Bee

By
The fact that royal jelly is the magic ingredient honeybee larvae need to become queens instead of workers is well known, but new ANU research finally sheds light on the reasons why.

The Australian National University (ANU) has announced new research on honeybees, queen bees, the nature/nuture divide and royal jelly that has made a beeline straight into the latest edition of the journal ‘Science’.

The ANU’s ‘Research School of Biological Sciences’ has had its scientists hard at work investigating the properties of royal jelly, and have discovered that honeybees which are chosen to enjoy a “copious and exclusive diet” of the regal stuff have a genetic switch turned on – a switch that either turns them into the queen on top of the bee hierarchy, or a worker living a “life of drudgery”.

The report published in Science is called the “Nutritional Control of Reproductive Status in Honeybees via DNA Methylation”, with the abstact here, the full PDF here (subscription required), and supporting online material here

In the process of making the discovery, the ANU says the research also “adds new weight to the role of environmental factors in the nature/nurture divide.”

Research team member Dr Ryszard Maleszka said that: “Royal jelly seems to chemically modify the bee’s genome by a process called DNA methylation and disrupts the expression of genes that turn young bees into workers”.

Dr Maleszka also said that: “When we ‘silenced’ a gene controlling DNA methylation without recourse to royal jelly, we discovered that the larvae began to develop as queens with the associated fertility, rather than as infertile workers.”

The ANU says that Dr Maleszka and his colleagues “believe this is the first time that DNA methylation has been functionally implicated in insects. The molecular process is common in vertebrates – including humans.”

In further explaining the research, Dr Maleszka notes that: “If you have identical human twins, and one develops schizophrenia, then you need another mechanism to explain how this can occur when they have the same genetic blueprint. DNA methylation links genomes to environmental factors like nutrition and modifies how genes express themselves. Discovering this in bees, which are a much simpler biological model than humans, means we have a better opportunity of understanding more about how this process occurs.”

So, what will the researchers do next? Please read onto page 2.


According to the ANU, the researchers work won’t stop, but will continue to study “how DNA methylation affects bees, as they suspect that the process could also be responsible for how the insects’ brains develop, and may thus be connected to bee behaviour and even social organisation.”

Explaining the nature/nuture link, the ANU says that the research “suggests that environmental factors, such as how organisms are nurtured, can have a major influence on how they develop.”

The research team of four busy bees includes Joanna Maleszka, Dr Robert Kucharski, Dr Sylvain Foret and Paul Helliwell.

The ANU says that the foursome’s current work “grew out of the honeybee genome project, which mapped the entire genetic blueprint of bees. Royal jelly is a food substance secreted by adult bees that is fed in some measure to all young bees. The larvae that is chosen to be queen is fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly.”

According to Science Magazine, the abstract of the published research findings is as follows:

“Fertile queens and sterile workers are alternative forms of the adult female honey bee that develop from genetically identical larvae following differential feeding with royal jelly. We now show that silencing the expression of DNA methyltransferase Dnmt3, a key driver of epigenetic global reprogramming, in newly hatched larvae, leads to a stunning royal jelly-like effect on the larval developmental trajectory; the majority of Dnmt3 siRNA-treated individuals now emerge as queens with fully developed ovaries.”

Hmm... sounds like we’re getting into the “birds and the bees” territory.

The abstract continues: “Our results suggest that; DNA methylation in Apis is utilized for storing epigenetic information; that the utilization of that information can be differentially altered by nutritional input, and that the flexibility of epigenetic modifications underpin profound shifts in developmental fates with massive implications for reproductive and behavioural status.”

And with that, I’m going to buzz off!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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