Bees help clarify nature, nurture debate

Posted by David Gomez

It seems as if bees are aiding scientists in their quests to solve the great mysteries of life. Recently bees have helped scientists gain more insight into the great nature-nurture debate.

The researchers found sweeping molecular differences in the brains of worker bees and queen bees. Their brains develop along very different paths when they are put on different diets.

Professor Ryszard Maleszka of The Australian National University's College of Medicine, Biology and Environment led the research along with colleagues from the German Cancer Institute in Heidelberg. The article is published in the online, open access journal PLoS Biology.

Their work shows that the environment can produce an effect that alters bee genes without affecting the genetic code. This effect on genes is known as a chemical process, a marking of DNA called DNA methylation.

"This marking determines which genes are to be fine-tuned in the brains of workers and queens to produce their extraordinarily different behaviours. This finding is not only crucial, but far reaching, because the enzymes that mark DNA in the bee are also the enzymes that mark DNA in human brains," said Professor Maleszka in an article on Science Daily.

"This study represents a giant step towards answering one of the big questions in the nature-nurture debate, because it shows how the outside world is linked to DNA via diet, and how environmental inputs can transiently modify our genetic hardware," he said.

Maleszka’s research is impossible to conduct on humans in a similar fashion. There is no way to observe humans like scientists do bees without influencing the behavior of the human subjects.

The simple-minded bee has helped scientists understand the complex nature of the human brain. It is quite surprising to find out that the bees and humans have more in common than meets the eye.

PLoS (Public Library of Science), the network that PLoS Biology belongs to is also worth mentioning too. It is a non-profit organization made up of scientists and doctors whose mission is to make peer reviewed scientific information available to all, free of charge. It is an interesting project with a noble goal worth checking out.