Honey Bees Get Navigational Help From A Single Gene

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Before a honey bee ever leaves the hive to forage, they must learn how to navigate a changing landscape and orient themselves in relation to the sun.


A new study from the University of Illinois reveals that a regulatory gene known to be involved in learning and the detection of novelty in vertebrates also energizes the brains of honey bees when they are learning how to find food and bring it home.

The study shows that whenever bees try to find their way around an unfamiliar environment, activity in this gene, known as Egr, quickly increases in a region of the brain known as the mushroom bodies. The researchers say that this gene is the insect equivalent of a transcription factor – which regulates the activity of other genes -  found in mammals.


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  1. I found this article to be a bit confusing. When it says:

    The study shows that whenever bees try to find their way around an unfamiliar environment, activity in this gene, known as Egr, quickly increases in a region of the brain known as the mushroom bodies.

    I keep trying to think of a concise way to explain my confusion and I need to fall back on computer science terminology: compile time is when the program gets built, all the code gets turned into something a machine can understand and the appropriate libraries are linked and parameters given values. Run time is when you actually use the program. I thought Genes were things that matter at Compile time, I.e. when an organism is maturing the gene tells it how to mature, what new limbs, neurons, etc. to grow and how to grow them. This seems to imply that the gene is working during run time. Not as part of telling the bee what neurons to develop so that it can navigate when it needs to but that the gene actually fires when it needs to navigate. If anyone can clarify I would appreciate it.

    • In reply to #1 by Red Dog:

      I found this article to be a bit confusing. When it says:

      The study shows that whenever bees try to find their way around an unfamiliar environment, activity in this gene, known as Egr, quickly increases in a region of the brain known as the mushroom bodies.

      I keep trying to think of a concise w…

      Genes are not only active for “building” purposes (your compiling I guess, I am not a programmer). Genes also regulate enzymatic activity, as enzymes are proteins (and sometimes RNA) that are ultimately transcribed from genes. Bacterias for example can have groups of genes that are turned on if say it notices lactose in the environment and therefore will start producing enzymes that can digest lactose. If there is no lactose in the environment it is a waste of resources to produce these enzymes so the genes are “turned off”. The gene they talk about here is a sort of regulatory gene to that is turned on given the correct stimulus, it will then regulate other genes in a way that ultimately causes the transcription of genes that help for this current task. There are several ways to regulate genes, sometimes its by the 3d structure of the chromosomes it self which can make it “harder” or “easier” for the gene to be accessed and transcribed, or it can be by alternative splicing in which one gene can code for several proteins (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_of_gene_expression and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_splicing).

      I would say that yes, they also act in what you call runtime (if I understood it correctly). The expressions of genes in your body is constantly regulated and responds to external stimuli, its not as much a blueprint as a continues regulation scheme..

      I hope I made some sense, I tried to simplify a bit whiteout making it to simple. I would recommend you reed up on it a bit, it is relay fascinating how our bodies is continually reacting to the world. It is even in such a way that in identical twins their gene expression are very similar when they are children but they get more and more different gene expressions from each other as they grow older since they will experience different things.

      A undergraduate biology book such as “Biology” by Campbell and Reece will explain it nicely and also explain the terms (if you are very interested that is..)

      Hope I helped and not confused you even more instead..

  2. In reply to #2 by Martin Torp Dahl:

    In reply to #1 by Red Dog:

    I found this article to be a bit confusing. When it says:

    The study shows that whenever bees try to find their way around an unfamiliar environment, activity in this gene, known as Egr, quickly increases in a region of the brain known as the mushroom bodies.

    I keep try…

    It cleared up a misconception I had, thanks. Sorry to use computer terms but I think you got what I meant, do genes work only in helping to tell organisms how to develop or do they actually play a role in controlling behavior? Before I read this I thought it was the former so the “energizing of their brains” discussed here I would have thought that the propensity and the cells required to do that energizing were what the genes controlled but when the brains actually were energized to find something that didn’t involve the genes. So I guess that was wrong. Thanks for the info. I actually appreciate the detail, not that I understand it all but I like getting stuff like that as input. Helps further energize my brain!

  3. I am sure many have seen, as I have, a swarm of bees in active flight, behaving with a formation flying precision of which even the Red Arrows would be proud – in my case, they approached a chimney on a farmhouse and converged to an inverted conical formation exactly the correct width to enter the chimney without slowing their pace.

    It is hard to see, exactly, how such complex behaviour might be explained solely in such superficial terms, without recourse to some means of co-ordination of the creatures so that they understand what is required of them.

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