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Otago Scientists help decode the Honeybee Genome

Thursday 26 October 2006

Otago Scientists help decode the Honeybee Genome

University of Otago researchers have played an important role in a large international effort to unravel the genetic code of the humble honeybee, becoming the first New Zealand scientists to contribute to a published animal genome.

The two research teams, from the Biochemistry and Zoology departments, say the completed DNA sequence will allow new insights into bee biology, evolutionary processes and how learning and memory work at the molecular level.

Biochemistry’s Dr Peter Dearden and Dr Megan Wilson and Zoology’s Dr Kyle Beggs and Professor Alison Mercer are co-authors of the report on the final version of the bee genome published today in the world’s leading science journal, Nature.

As part of an international consortium of over 170 scientists from 16 countries, the Otago researchers contributed independently to identifying bee developmental genes and genes related to brain function and behaviour.

Dr Dearden says both University teams are excited and honoured to have been involved. He also noted that decoding the genome is an important scientific achievement, and may also offer clues in helping protect an insect vital to New Zealand’s economy.

“As well as crops directly relying on bee pollination being worth over $1.2 billion per year, pollination of pasture plants such as clover is estimated as providing more than $1.87 billion worth of nitrogen to our soils each year, he says.

“Deciphering the genome will speed our understanding of bee biology, which is central to efforts to come up with new ways to tackle threats such as the Varroa mite.

Dr Dearden’s and Dr Wilson’s contributions to the report included the discovery that bees lacked several important early developmental genes found in fruitflies - a key and unexpected finding, Dr Dearden says.

“The missing fruitfly genes control important aspects of early embryonic development and we were quite surprised that bees did not share them.”

Professor Mercer and Dr Beggs investigated the genes involved in the dopamine systems of bees. Dopamine is a chemical found in the brains of all animals. In humans, as well as in honey bees, it plays a significant role in learning and memory.

“Bees are a very valuable model for studying the biology of the brain and basic molecular mechanisms involved in learning and memory. New discoveries made about how dopamine systems work in bees can be correlated back to humans” says Dr Beggs.
“They have a highly advanced social structure and are extremely clever for insects. In fact, the ‘waggle’ dance they use to direct nestmates to food sources is the only known use of a symbolic language outside of primates,” he added.

The work of both research teams has been supported by grants from the New Zealand Marsden Fund.


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