Bees gather on a honeycomb in Vienna, July 11, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)
A new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals that chemical tags on worker bees are reversible and correlate with job assignments, the Guardian reported on Sunday.
Like Us on Facebook
Honeybees are divided into two work roles, queen bees and worker bees, which are then further divided into foragers and stay-at-home workers. However, all honeybees in a hive are genetically identical sisters.
According to the study, honeybee foragers contained a chemical tag on their DNA different from honeybee workers that stayed at home. These chemical tags were discovered to be interchangeable, the Guardian reported, and are called epigenetic states because they work on top of normal genetic codes.
The Guardian reported that the study is the first to show that reversible chemical tags on genes might influence different behaviors in living animals.
Dr. Andrew Feinberg, the senior author of the study and a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, said, “If this is true in a bee it has to be party true in us. Nature is pretty good at finding the simplest way to accomplish things with the least amount of energy. I’m not saying we’re like big bees, but similar mechanisms must apply.”
They study, conducted by Feinberg and Dr. Gro Amdam, a bee specialist at Arizona State University, analyzed chemical tagging called DNA methylation in the brains of 21 nurse bees and 22 forager bees. They discovered 155 regions of DNA where epigenetic patterns between the two bee groups differed.
According to the Guardian, the researchers then removed the nurse bees, only to learn that the hive stabilized itself when half of the forager bees took over as nurses. Tests on the bees revealed that the chemical tags changed when the forager bees took over as nurses.
Amdam told the Guardian, “What we understand now is that the bee genome is like those images where you can see two things, like an old lady and a young lady. These epigenetic marks seem to outline those two women. Depending on which bee should come to life, the different sets of marks become active.”
“These marks can change from one image to another and even back, and something like that has never been observed before in biology,” she added.
While changing the DNA methylation patterns does not guarantee a change in behavior, Amdam said it would be a big step in biomedicine, according to Nature.com. “Reversing possible ‘bad’ epigenetic marks in human physical and psychological diseases is already a big research interest in biomedicine. Perhaps bees can be used to figure out how it could be done.”