It is extremely fortunate that the Honey Bee Genome Project (HBGP) is now completed. Thanks must go Dr. Gene Robinson and colleagues who developed the white paper that was the basis for the DNA sequencing. Potential expected results for supporting the HBGP, include the following:
Novel antibiotics. Increased drug resistance by pathogenic bacteria has created an urgent demand for new antibiotics. Insects are among the more promising sources of novel antibiotics and honey bees likely offer a rich source because of their sociality. Like humans, honey bees live in a social environment with nearly-ideal conditions for growth and transmission of pathogens.
Infectious disease. Humans show both antigen-specific and innate immune responses to important pathogens including Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Better understanding of innate immunity can help counter these diseases, especially when vaccines have limited effectiveness.
Bee venom, anaphylaxis and human allergic disease. Honey bees defend their hive aggressively with both sophisticated behavioral and biochemical mechanisms. Bee venom has a wide range of medically important and pharmacologically active compounds.
Nutrition. Honey bees are the premier beneficial insect worldwide. While best known for honey, the honey bee’s more critical contribution to human nutrition is crop pollination, valued at nearly $15 billion/year in the US. Pollination increases the quantity and quality of fruits, nuts, and seeds, many of them increasingly recognized as sources of nutraceuticals. But parasites and pathogens compromise bee health and pollination activities. A HBGP will help to breed bees that resist disease and insecticides, pollinate more efficiently, but sting less. \
Mental health. Some forms of mental illness, such as autism, involve problems with social integration. Bees show a high degree of social integration, and their activities are highly dependent upon their ability to read social cues; identification of several well-defined sets of social cues make for unusually tractable experimental social systems.
Biosensors. A HBGP also may enhance use of honey bees as environmental sentinels.
X chromosome diseases. Mutations on the X-chromosome are responsible for many serious conditions, including Turner’s syndrome, Trisomy-X, Kleinfelter’s syndrome, hemophilia, colorblindness, and fragile-X syndrome, the leading cause of mental retardation. Honey bees are “haplo-diploid;” in a sense, each bee chromosome is an X-chromosome, i.e., one copy in the male and two copies in the female. A HBGP will enable comparative analyses to address questions such as: What control regions are important in gene expression, sexual development, and dosage compensation on the X? No haplo-diploid animal has yet been sequenced.
Instincts. The societies of honey bees and other social insects occupy Wilson’s second “pinnacle of social evolution,” with complexity that rivals our own. Among the provocative similarities are: extensive communication systems (including the only non-primate symbolic language); highly organized defense and warfare; complex architecture (including the insect equivalent of skyscrapers – 4 meter high termite nests in Africa); and expressions of personal sacrifice unheard of in most of the rest of the animal kingdom.
Cognition. Bees collect food from flowers, a highly ephemeral food source, and have evolved sophisticated cognitive abilities to maximize foraging success. They are excellent at associative learning, based on the need to associate a color, shape, scent, or location with a food reward. Honey bees also can learn abstract concepts such as “similar” and “dissimilar,” and are able to negotiate complex mazes by using visual stimuli as direct or abstract “signposts” or by recognizing path irregularities.
Gerontology. Queens and their workers have identical genotypes but queens live two orders of magnitude longer. Identification of all differentially expressed genes responsible for these striking differences in lifespan, facilitated by a HBGP, undoubtedly has important implications for human longevity and aging.
Read more about this exciting project here.