So what can chemists learn from the industrious pollinator?

The humble honeybee is giving up its genetic secrets, now that scientists have unveiled the insect’s entire genome sequence.

Although genomes seem to arrive with increasing regularity, the honeybee genome marks an important milestone in the effort to decode the DNA of animals and plants. 


It is only the third insect genome to be sequenced, following the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) and the mosquito (Anopheles gambiae). 

It has prompted an unprecedented coordination of related publications, with NatureScienceGenome Research and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, all orchestrating publication of numerous studies linked to the announcement. 

In fact, the honeybee (Apis mellifera) has occupied a central position in the field of genetics ever since Gregor Mendel switched allegiance from peas to bees. It wasn’t the most successful research project - his bees produced delicious honey, but were extraordinarily vicious and had to be destroyed. Yet, unwittingly, Mendel had opened the door on the fascinating field of bee behaviour. 

Honeybees are a rare example of a species whose evolution has arrived at an advanced society, where queens produce young, and non-reproductive workers gather food, care for young, build nests and defend colonies. 

The genome sequence has revealed that some genes, particularly those involved in circadian rhythm, RNA interference and DNA methylation, are more like those seen in vertebrate genomes than they are like those in the genomes of other insects. 

Honeybees also appear to have the highest rate of recombination - the process by which genetic material is physically mixed during sexual reproduction - of any known animal.  

Chemists have a lot to learn from the honeybee genome. The animals have a legendary sense of smell; their genome contains more genes related to olfaction than either of the other insect genomes already sequenced. Many of the world’s flowering plants rely on this keen sense of smell for pollination.

Scientists at the Rothamsted research centre, Harpenden, UK, for example, have been adapting the honeybee olfactory system to detect illicit compounds like cocaine and semtex (Chemistry World, July 2006, p26). 

And the venom in the bees’ legendary sting contains a key component called melittin that bursts bacterial membranes (Chemistry World, October 2004, p15), forming the basis of possible future antibacterial agents. A polymer that kills bacterial cells with the same efficacy as melittin, but without the toxicity, is now being developed (Chemistry World, May 2005, p20). Mendel would be pleased.

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