Bees Can Alter Their Genetics When It Suits Them

Here’s something freaky and kind of weird: When a bee switches over from nursing to foraging for pollen, they also switch some of their genes on or off.

Your average worker honeybee is born a nurse. It feeds and takes care of the larvae and the queen, and also is generally underpaid and molested by senile older bees. After a few weeks, though, it becomes a pollen hunter.

Researchers with some time on their hands decided to empty a hive of all nurse bees, and when the foragers returned, a switch flipped. They literally changed their genes back to being nurse bees.

So how did they do this? And what implication does this have for our much more intelligent mammal brain?

They did it through a process called epigenetic modification, basically a fancy way of saying “editing your whole genome”. DNA uses methyl tags to decide what genes produce proteins and what genes STFU: The bees had a specific pattern of methylation when they were foraging, but once they had to become nurses, it triggered a whole new set.

So, this is weird, but what does this have to do with humans? Mostly it offers new evidence for the theory that certain aspects of our DNA can be switched on and off: Once we’re born we’re not “locked in” bar a chemical spill or radioactive event, but rather circumstances can flip whole suites of genes on and off. Think of it as a role-playing game: Sometimes you’re a paladin, sometimes you’re a rogue.

Whether this can happen in humans is uncertain and controversial, but nonetheless, we’ve got some more evidence that at the very least, it happens.

image courtesy kaibara on Flickr