Gene Robinson grew up as a city kid in Buffalo, NY, with no particular passion for bees. But when he spent a year at 19 volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel, “I was asked to help work with the bees for a couple of weeks. … I remember writing home, telling my parents I had found what I wanted to do.” He headed to Cornell to study biology and never looked back.
Now, Robinson, 48, is an entomologist who started the University of Illinois’s bee program — and is eagerly adding genomics tools to his studies. “Trying to link genes to social behavior is extremely difficult,” he says, “and is one of the challenges that remains in biology.” The funding agencies have taken quite an interest in his work: he has $500,000 over three years, mostly from a Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant for innovation in functional genomics; he also receives funding from NIH and NSF.
With some 100 bee colonies scattered within 10 miles of the Urbana-Champaign campus, Robinson has the perfect setup to use genomics for a largely untapped research frontier: “understanding the molecular roots of social behavior.” Because bees have such complex communities and social organization, they’re a perfect model for such studies.
Within the worker-bee community, Robinson explains, roles change frequently, and studying gene expression around those changes has been enlightening for his lab. He can create colonies with certain characteristics — deliberately forming hives that are particularly old, young, large, small, or even genotypically narrow or diverse — giving a glimpse of resultant behavior and its associated gene expression profile that can’t be attempted with most socially complex organisms. It’s a massive genetics project that wouldn’t be possible, he says, “using a one-gene-at-a-time approach.”
To that end, he and his team have designed the bee-brain microarray, estimated to hold roughly half the genes of the bee genome. “Using that microarray, we’re finding that there are many genes that change in their expression as the bee moves from one occupation to the next occupation in life,” he says. Naturally, he adds, the cause and effect could go either way: genes affecting behavior or behavior affecting genes — but “that’s of course what social behavior is all about, the give and take,” he says, suspecting that both directions of causality occur. “We should be able to see traces of that all the way down to the genome.”
These genomic studies could also finally end the nature/nurture debates. Instead of seeing it as a battle between the two, Robinson says, “Both are acting on the genome. We have to get to an understanding of how hereditary influences and environmental influences both [are] causing changes that result in gene expression.”
— Meredith Salisbury