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article imageGenetic variety of the bumblebee mapped for first time

By Tim Sandle     May 5, 2015 in Science
New research has examined the genome of two different species of bumblebee. The bees play an important role in pollination and are commercially important. The study reveals insights into the ecology of the bee.
Bumblebees play a key role in maintaining the diversity of plant life on the planet and they are essential for agriculture. Scientists are worried about a decline in the population of some species of bumblebee. Although bumble losses have not been as dramatic as those of the honeybee, the current trends are sufficient to give concern to scientists.
The future of bees was the key reason why researchers have analysed the genomes of two commercially important bees: the European Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, and its American counterpart, the Common Eastern Bumblebee Bombus impatiens. The aim of the analysis was to shed light on the biology, ecology and evolution of the bumblebee.
The results from the two bees were compared with other insects of significance that had previously had their genomes mapped. These were: honeybee, the parasitoid wasp Nasonia and fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.
With the examination of the bees it was found that genomes of the two bees closely resembled each other. The genomes were made up of some 20,000 different genes located on 18 chromosomes.
Although honeybees and bumblebees are similar in terms of their respective genomes, the study found that bumblebees have more genes equipped for taste and honeybees more genes orientated towards smells.
Interestingly, in terms of bee survival, only 150 genes were found to be involved in the immune system (and thus in fighting disease) whereas in the more humble fruit fly, over 300 genes are linked with immunity. This may explain the vulnerability of the bumblebee. Also of interest, the honeybee also has a relatively low number of immune system related genes.
The reason for this, scientists think, is that for thousands of years bees, as social insects, have used their communities to resist pathogens. The problem now is that they face new threats where the social community defense is insufficient.
Furthermore, a fly like Drosophila will feed off rotten fruit that will have various microbes like fungi and bacteria on it, so the fly has a strong internal defense. In contrast, bees tend to feed off relatively “clean” sources of food.
With the genes of the bumblebee and honeybee, these are not well equipped for detoxification meaning that pesticides also present a problem and this finding tallies with other research that suggests some pesticides present a major risk to bee communities. Whether this can be overcome by other means is uncertain. However, researchers have found that the diet of the bee affects resistance, and this could help protect bee populations.
The study was run by scientists based at ETH Zurich. The findings have been published in the journal Genome Biology, in a paper headed “Depauperate immune repertoire precedes evolution of sociality in bees.”
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