Information system to help scientists analyze mechanisms of social behavior


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- With a $5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will create BeeSpace, a system to help scientists analyze all sources of information relevant to the mechanisms of social behavior.

The complex society of the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, will drive the information system. The system will be a software environment that "will help to shed light on an unprecedented scale on the relationship between genes and how lives are carried out in an animal society," said principal investigator Bruce Schatz, professor of library and information science.

"We will take a fresh look at the fundamental problem of the mechanism of behavior, whether behavior is caused by nature or nurture," said Schatz, who also directs the Community Architectures for Network Information Systems (CANIS) Laboratory, a campus resource for new information systems.

"Worries abound over the ethical implications of genetic determinism," he said. "The goal of BeeSpace is to help forge a deeper understanding of the relationship between genes and behavior that transcends nature-nurture. This project will use genomic biology to demonstrate that what matters for social behavior is that DNA is both genetically inherited and environmentally responsive."

BeeSpace was one of six awards totaling $30 million announced today (Sept. 16) as part of the NSF's Frontiers of Integrative Biological Research (FIBR), a program now in its second year.

BeeSpace will be housed in the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), now under construction on Gregory Drive in Urbana. The $75 million state-of-the-art facility, which will open in mid-2006, will be home to 400 campus researchers in three broad areas: systems biology, cellular and metabolic engineering, and genome technology.

"We are pleased to provide the institutional support for BeeSpace, which will be a flagship project for the institute," said Harris Lewin, IGB director and professor of animal sciences. "We are putting significant resources behind this project to ensure that it demonstrates the great potential of genomic biology."

New genome technology will underlie the BeeSpace efforts in biology and informatics research.

"In biology research, we will develop the first complete analysis of the normal behavior of an animal at the level of gene expression," said Gene E. Robinson, professor of entomology. Robinson, the G.W. Arends Professor of Integrative Biology and director of the Neuroscience Program at Illinois, is one of six scientists with leading roles in BeeSpace. Robinson also is coordinating the honey-bee genome project, which began in 2002, with sequencers at the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"Honey bees are complex social animals with highly flexible behavior," he said. "They live in the equivalent of an urban environment where much of their social behavior is in response to environmental conditions."

A BeeSpace team led by Robinson will generate a molecular signature of all the major roles performed by honey bees. "To do this," he said, "we will generate profiles of gene expression that occurs in the brain of individuals that are captured in the very act of performing their normal activities."

While the experimental model is an insect, the researchers will use broad categories of social roles that could potentially apply to higher organisms, including humans. To further support comparisons across organisms, genes whose expressions are particularly significant for social behavior will be localized within the bee brain. Susan Fahrbach, a long-time professor of entomology at Illinois who now is the Reynolds Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, will handle the neuroanatomy. She also will use BeeSpace in undergraduate education.

"In informatics research, we will develop the first complete environment to conceptually navigate all the knowledge about a major model organism," Schatz said.

"The BeeSpace environment will include all information relevant to social behavior of honey bees, from genome databases and scientific literature," he said. "This information will be indexed with new semantic technologies that will support interactive navigation across many sources from many viewpoints, at the level of concepts rather than data."

Technologies to statistically analyze the information sources to enable semantic indexing will be developed by ChengXiang Zhai, professor of computer science and an expert on processing natural language for information retrieval. Sandra Rodriguez-Zas, professor of animal sciences and expert on designing microarray experiments, will pursue technologies to analyze the gene expressions.

The experimental users of BeeSpace will be an international community of biologists who study honey bees and related organisms. The education and outreach will be supervised by Bertram Bruce, professor of library and information science. Students and educators will be fundamentally involved in the project. University students will be trained in the frontiers of integrative biology, and advanced high school and minority middle-school students will get a taste of the scientific research.

"By testing the BeeSpace environment with users at different levels, we hope to demonstrate the utility of concept navigation across community knowledge," Schatz said. "Similar information technology can then serve as a model of the Interspace, the generation of the Net beyond the Internet, where all the world's knowledge can be easily analyzed across many sources."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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