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Honey Bees’ Genetics Changed by Diet

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.

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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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20667948#

And one of several pages on Wikipedia about epigenetics:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_epigenetics