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Genomic examination of novelty seeking behavior in bees.


The NSF funded Robinson lab has taken advantage of the resources available from the Honey Bee genome project to advance our understanding of the genomic basis for complex behaviors. Specifically, they asked how do changes in gene expression result in changes in brain architecture, function and behavior, and how do behavioral modifications lead to changes in gene expression? Robinson, a co-PI on the IGERT, and his colleagues (including his Zhengzheng Sophia Liang IGERT co-PI Sandra Rodriguez-Zas) took advantage of consistent individual differences in behavior among bees – analogous to personality in humans – to look for genes that contribute to novelty seeking behavior. Specifically, they examined two “novelty seeking” behaviors: scouting for new nest sites and scouting for new sources of food. Their study, published in Science, used whole-genome microarrays to measure gene expression patterns that underly the genetic basis for novely-seeking in scouts. Among the many differentially expressed genes were several related to catecholamine, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) signaling, and the researchers zeroed in on these because they are involved in regulating novelty-seeking and responding to reward in vertebrates.

To test whether the changes in brain signaling caused the novelty-seeking, the researchers subjected groups of bees to treatments that would increase or inhibit these chemicals in the brain. Two treatments (with glutamate and octopamine) increased scouting in bees that had not scouted before. Blocking dopamine signaling decreased scouting behavior, the researchers found. “Our results say that novelty-seeking in humans and other vertebrates has parallels in an insect,” Robinson said. “One can see the same sort of consistent behavioral differences and molecular underpinnings.” The findings also suggest that insects, humans and other animals made use of the same genetic “tool kit” in the evolution of behavior, Robinson said. The tools in the tool kit – genes encoding certain molecular pathways – may play a role in the same types of behaviors, but each species has adapted them in its own, distinctive way. This research was supported by The National Science Foundation, The National Institutes of Health and The Illinois Sociogenomics Initiative.

Address Goals

The goal of our IGERT is to produce a new generation of biologists with novel training that provides a modern blend of genome-enabled biology and taxon-centered expertise, with specific emphasis on how the genome and the environment interact to give rise to diversity. A key component of this goal is training students to both generate genomic data and also analyze it in the context of the ecology, behavior and evolution of the organism. This research was transformative in the experimentally manipulated gene expression to cause changes in a fundamental behavior related to novelty seeking. Moreover, these experiments confirmed that conserved pathway exists for these behaviors between insects and vertebrates.