Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nurture 1-Ups Nature in Bee Study

It's a classic debate: do we hold nature or nurture more responsible for the end result that is an adult organism? The findings of a recent study published through the University of Illinois suggest that long-term evolution in gene expression can be linked to more short-term changes that result from the environment. To put it plainly, maybe nurture can alter nature.

Pictured above: Bee

By looking at aggressive responses in different types of bees, the researchers were hoping to find some important relationships between behavior, the environment, and heredity. In short, they were looking for signs of behavioral evolution.

Researchers looked at two different types of bees: (1) European honeybees (EHB), the more common and docile variety, and (2) Africanized honeybees (AHB), a hybrid of African and European honeybees, notoriously known as "killer bees" due to their aggressiveness. To observe how aggression looks in the brain, the researchers exposed the bees to a pheromone that usually alerts the bees that there is danger to the hive.

This study suggests that forces in the environment may be able to stimulate changes in the genes that have long-term effects on the organism that may then be passed on to offspring. Let that sink in for a moment.

Among other things, the researchers noted that the resting brain state of Africanized honeybees shows heightened activity of certain genes:

Pictured above: EHB with resting brain state and AHB with resting brain state. The AHB innately has more activity in genes related to aggression, even when no danger is present.

More interestingly, the study showed that European honeybees exposed to alarm pheromones have brain activity that shows many similarities to the resting brain state of Africanized honeybees.
Pictured above: EHB with aroused brain state and AHB with similar resting brain state. The similarities suggest a common molecular basis between inherited aggression and stimulated aggression.

The researchers also noted that an Africanized honeybee living in a European bee colony will actually become less aggressive over time, and a European honeybee living in an Africanized colony will become more aggressive.

Pictured above: An AHB living in a EHB hive will become less aggressive over time.

We can't assume that these types of relationships translate the same way when it comes to humans and our social behaviors and genetic expressions of aggression, but this study helps us understand how behavior is influenced by both our environment and our genes.

Read the full paper, "Honey Bee Aggression Supports a Link Between Gene Regulation and Behavioral Evolution."

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