News Coverage: Study finds parallels between unresponsive honey bees, autism in humans

Honey bees that consistently fail to respond to obvious social cues share something fundamental with autistic humans, researchers report in a new study. Genes most closely associated with autism spectrum disorders in humans are regulated differently in unresponsive honey bees than in their more responsive nest mates, the study found.

The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appear to be unique to genes associated with autism and not to other behavioral disorders in humans. The study offers an early glimpse of the molecular heritage shared across the animal kingdom, the researchers say, and offers tantalizing clues about the evolution of social behavior.

Postdoctoral researcher Michael Saul, left, IGB director and entomology professor Gene Robinson and their colleagues found that genes that are closely associated with autism spectrum disorders in humans are regulated differently in the brains of socially unresponsive honey bees than in bees that behave more typically.
Postdoctoral researcher Michael Saul, left, IGB director and entomology professor Gene Robinson and their colleagues found that genes that are closely associated with autism spectrum disorders in humans are regulated differently in the brains of socially unresponsive honey bees than in bees that behave more typically.

“Some honey bees are more active than others, and some appear indifferent to intruders that threaten the hive. This, in itself, is not unusual,” said University of Illinois entomology professor Gene Robinson, who led the new analysis. “Honey bees take on different roles at different stages of their lifecycle, and not every bee can – or should – function as a guard,” he said.

But when postdoctoral researcher Hagai Shpigler observed that some of those same bees also were unmoved by the presence of a queen larva – a stimulus that typically spurs diligent action in nurse bees – it suggested something unusual was going on, said Robinson, who directs the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U. of I.

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News Coverage: Brief interactions spur lasting waves of gene activity in the brain

A five-minute encounter with an outsider spurs a cascade of changes in gene activity in the brain that can last for hours, researchers report in a study of stickleback fish.

The research, described in the journal PLOS Genetics, is one of three recent studies  – the others conducted in honey bees and mice – to see waves of changes in gene expression in the brain 30 minutes to two hours after contact with an intruder.

University of Illinois animal biology professor Alison Bell, graduate student Syed Abbas Bukhari and their colleagues tracked changes in gene expression in the stickleback brain after the fish encountered an intruder.

“We are discovering that social interactions are extremely potent; they provoke big changes in gene expression in the brain,” said University of Illinois animal biology professor Alison Bell, who studies behavior in three-spined stickleback fish. “These very subtle social interactions are getting under the skin and becoming embedded in the brain. Studies like ours are beginning to show how that actually works.” Bell is a member of the IGB’s Gene Networks in Neural & Developmental Plasticity research theme, which supported this research.

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World of Genomics brings Stubbs lab and IGB research to Chicago

From May 18th to 20th in Chicago, over 15,000 visitors experienced the World of Genomics at the Field Museum of Natural History, a three-day event presented by the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. A large, blue-lit funnel representing the tree of life dominated the space; beneath it, the world’s smallest sequencer read out the genomes of never-before-sequenced organisms currently studied at the IGB.

With six learning stations distributed across Stanley Field Hall, the main floor of the museum where famous T. rex  Sue is displayed, World of Genomics represented the full scope of IGB research in health, technology, and the environment, with hands on activities and exhibits for all ages.

“In all of the outreach events I’ve been a part of, I’ve never experienced such an engaged audience that asked so many excellent, relevant questions about our research,” said Beryl Jones, one of the over 60 volunteers from the IGB who staffed the event. “World of Genomics was truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my PhD, and I feel honored to have been a part of an event that reached so many people.”

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Congratulations to Dr Sun.

Congratulations to Dr. Sun for his successful thesis defense entitled: DISSECTING THE REGULATORY ROLES AND CELLULAR FUNCTIONS OF MAMMALIAN ZSCAN5B AND PRIMATE-SPECIFIC PARALOGS!  Calvin is moving on to the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego, CA.