Bee genome information housed at Texas A&M University

COLLEGE STATION -- The cluster of electronics looks mundane enough. Twenty computers hum away, blue lights flashing. But the data these computers are processing, though, may help cure disease and put food on tables throughout the world.

About three years ago, Dr. Christine Elsik an expert in genomics in the department of animal science at Texas A&M University offered to house the data from the honey bee genome sequencing project at Baylor College of Medicine's Human Genome Sequencing Center. Baylor researchers finished sequencing the genome in March, but the work continues.

Elsik's computers house the data from the sequence of the 16 chromosomes and 265 million nucleotides of the honey bee, she said.

Baylor's findings from the honey bee genome sequencing were published today in Nature. Baylor took the lead on the sequencing in 2003, with assistance from Texas A&M, Australian National University, and other universities, agencies and individuals such as Dan Weaver of Navasota.

"I think it is going to dramatically change the way that beekeepers manage their hives and suppress disease and parasitic mites in their colonies," said Weaver, president of Bee Weaver Apiaries. "It will help us have healthier bees that are more productive."

Bee Weaver Apiaries supplies breeding queens to beekeepers, he said.

Weaver helped initiate the honey bee genome sequencing work in 2001.Weaver, Dr. Spencer Johnston, entomologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, researchers from University of Illinois, U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other universities and agencies, wrote a "white paper" that explained the need for and potential benefits of sequencing the genome. That paper was submitted to the National Institutes of Health, which provided the funding to Baylor College of Medicine for the research.

With support from the Experiment Station and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M, DNA from a honey bee queen supplied by Weaver was used to make a draft copy of the bee genome.

An international team of researchers from Baylor, Texas A&M, University of Illinois, Australian National University and USDA analyzed the genome.

"I have been looking forward to having the information from the honey bee genome for a number of years," Weaver said. "Using this information should make it simpler to select and propagate honey bees resistant to parasites and disease, and enable more accurate identification of Africanized honey bees."

The object of mapping the genome is to show where genes are located on the chromosome, Elsik said. That work is well along. What is left, she said, is the detail work.

Johnston likened that work to having a thick book written with only four of the 26 letters of the alphabet all in one long sentence. The researchers' task is to learn how to punctuate and read that language by identifying key words, sentences and chapters within that book. Many scientists have worked together to find the exact location and sequence of genes of interest, he said.

"One approach is to compare the honey bee sequence with sequence data from other organisms, such as the fruit fly and man," he said. "Genes are conserved among organisms, so it is often possible to recognize honey bee genes by their similarity to other known genes."

"I think honey bee genomics will provide new technological innovation which will enable us to produce more foods, better quality food with fewer inputs in the form of potentially dangerous or toxic chemicals in the environment," Weaver said.

Also, since scientists perceive the bee as a model organism to study human health and disease, the genome could also lead to medical breakthroughs in humans, he said.

Two new technologies that represent a significant advance in agriculture have come out of the sequencing effort, Weaver said. The first is an advance in RNAi--or RNAinterference. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a molecular structure that is used by DNA as a template to translate genetic information into proteins.

RNA interference effectively silences genes by administering short double-stranded RNAs complementary to the gene one wants to turn off, he said.

"While RNAi recently won the Nobel Prize for the scientists who discovered it in nematodes--Craig Mello and Andrew Fire--its tremendous potential for therapeutic applications in human medicine will depend upon a better understanding of how the RNAi response differs between nematodes and humans," Weaver said.

The honey bee RNAi genes are much more like both the nematode and human RNAi genes than the RNAi genes of some other well-studied organisms like the fruit fly, he added.

Developing ways of treating insects with this new class of regulatory compounds, could "profoundly and very specifically change their genetic responses," he said.

"RNAi has the potential to control production of different castes for colony maintenance, influence honey bee pollination behavior so important to crop production, and even modify the defensive response of the Africanized honey bee making it a less significant threat to human welfare," he said.

Genes could literally be "turned on or off" in honey bees or in pathogens, Weaver said. That is a significant advance, he added.

"One of the challenges beekeepers face in their attempt to control other arthropod vectors and disease in their hives is that most current pesticides that are toxic to the pest also kill the honey bee," he said.

The second technological advance is the ability to genotype bees. For example, Weaver's employees routinely snip portions of queens' wings to mark them for shipment. DNA could be extracted from the wings and tested to see if the queens carry Africanized honey bee genes or other genes of interest.

Honey bees contribute an estimated $15 billion per year in agricultural value through their pollination of fruit, nut and vegetable crops, Weaver said.

"It's also estimated that one out of three bites on your table is a direct consequence of honey bee pollination," he said.

"Honey bee biologists would have to go to a lot of trouble to sequence in their labs every single gene they are interested in," Elsik said. "They can go to our Web site and download the sequence. It saves them a lot of work."

Elsik's Web site is http://racerx00.tamu.edu/bee_resources.html .

"With the release of the completed honey bee genome we have taken bites of another kind toward understanding the behavior and social structure and life history of this beneficial insect," Johnston said.

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