Another fascinating genetics story, reported by BBC Science. I’m not sure I fully understand this (in fact, I don’t!) but it appears that bees undergo epigenetic changes based on what they are fed as larvae.
To be more specific, larvae fed on a pollen and nectar diet become worker bees whereas those fed royal jelly (served with a silver spoon, presumably) become queen bees.
Here’s one quote from the BBC report by Mark Kinver:
“The development of different bees from the same DNA in the larvae is one of the clearest examples of epigenetics in action – mechanisms that go beyond the basic DNA sequence,” said Mark Dickman from the University of Sheffield, co-author of a paper in Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
If I understand correctly, epigenetic changes can influence the growth of neurons in the developing brain. I had a brief scout around Wikipedia to see if epigenetic changes occur in humans. I learn that Meaney and Szyf, working at McGill University in Montréal in 2004, discovered that the type of mothering a rat receives in infancy determines how that rat responds to stress later in life.
The first study that has directly linked epigenetic changes in human brain tissue to behavior involved post-mortem brains of people who committed suicide, half of whom had been abused as children.
Most of the online explanations of epigenetics are way too technical for me but I did find a lay explanation by blogger Philip Strange Science Writing. He discusses honey bees and then relates epigenetics to the development of human twins. Fascinating stuff: http://bit.ly/UTpvBe
Here’s Mark Kinver’s full report for BBC News:
And one of several pages on Wikipedia about epigenetics: