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Reversible Epigenetic Changes Associated with Bee Behavior

Andrew P. Feinberg, M.D.
Johns Hopkins University
NIEHS Grant DP1ES022579


Researchers studying honeybees report what could be the first evidence of reversible epigenetic changes associated with behavior. The research may shed light on problems that people have with learning, memory, stress response, and mood disorders, which all involve interactions between genetic and epigenetic components. The work was supported by an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.


Although all worker honeybees are genetically identical within the same hive, they carry out different roles. For example, some bees nurse larvae, while others forage for food. Since genetics isn’t responsible for the differing behaviors, epigenetic changes are likely involved. Epigenetic changes, such as DNA methylation, modify gene expression without changing the genetic code.


To study the role of epigenetic changes in bee behavior, the researchers used a method known as comprehensive high-throughput arrays for relative methylation (CHARM) to locate methylated DNA in the brains of bees. They found no differences in DNA methylation between worker and queen bees, roles that are irreversible. However, they saw substantial differences between nurses and forager bees. Reverting foragers back to nurses reestablished methylation levels for a majority of genes, providing evidence of reversible epigenetic changes that are associated with behavior.


Citation: Herb BR, Wolschin F, Hansen KD, Aryee MJ, Langmead B, Irizarry R, Amdam GV, Feinberg AP. October 2012. Reversible switching between epigenetic states in honeybee behavioral subcastes. Nat Neurosci 15(10):1371-1373.

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