The genetic pathway toward social behavior for honey bees and mammals is more similar than previously thought, according to a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology titled "Conservation in Mammals of Genes Associated with Aggression-Related Behavioral Phenotypes in Honey Bees."
Social animals have complex lives, where development and survival are dependent on social interaction. Many animals including humans, killer whales, bats and honey bees are social animals.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois examined the origin of honey bee social behavior by examining their genome.
New algorithms were used to compare random data sets generated from 7,462 honey bee genes against genes from 53 animals. The average number of orthologs – genes from different species that evolved from a common ancestral gene – was calculated for each random data set.
"When we began this study there were three possible outcomes: a) Our tools would not be adequate to determine whether sociality in honey bees and mammals shared a common genomic origin, b) we would discover there was no common genomic origin discernible from the data, or c) we would discover that there is a common origin," said the authors.
"The answer turned out to be c), which is nice, because it is the most interesting answer."
To many people's surprise, the researchers found that the set of genes responsible for expressing the alarm pheromone in the brains of honey bees contained "disproportionately large numbers of genes also found in mammals, including humans."
The alarm pheromone is triggered in worker bees when the colony is under threat. When honey bees sting an animal, they release a banana-smelling pheromone that alerts other bees to behave defensively and unleash their stings too. Other pheromones repel enemies from entering the hive.
The study shows that these genes are more widely conserved between honey bees and mammals, compared to either honey bees and asocial insects, or honey bees and asocial vertebrates. Most of the genes conserved between the honey bees and mammals were responsible for dictating cell structure.
The authors, Hui Liu, Gene E Robinson and Eric Jakobsson, believe that these genes are involved in processing communication signals that are essential for social behavior. ®