Professor Gene Robinson studies the genes and social behavior of honey bees

By Nandika Chatterjee, Staff writer

Professor Gene Robinson is the director of the Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the Swanlund chair for entomology and neuroscience. He is also a faculty member in the Department of Entomology. Robinson is in charge of bringing in cutting-edge research to his laboratory at the IGB and also works as an administrator.  

Julian Catchen is an assistant professor in Department of Animal Biology. His lab is a computational biology lab wherein they study the evolution of genomes in fish.

When describing Robinson’s work ethic, Catchen said, “Gene is this really effective administrator, keeping the IGB going, bringing people together, finding funding. Yet his lab is still cutting edge and he is still involved in the research.”

Catches also described Robinson as being a model for someone who wants to move further in the field.

Robinson obtained his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1986. He has been a faculty member at the University for 29 years.

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“I came here initially for the University’s reputation for excellence and particularly in the discipline of entomology. The Department of Entomology has, for many years, been a top ranked department,” Robinson said.

During his time here, Robinson has since set up a bee research program at the University and is currently the director of the bee research laboratory. The professor said he enjoys working with his colleagues, graduate students, post-doc students and young students.

“We have built a new synthesis that combines the new science of genomics with the study of social behavior,” Robinson said. “Something that I call socio-genomics and helping see everyone contribute to that synthesis, building new connections, developing new ideas to understand the relationship between genes and social behavior has been just fantastic.”

At the young age of 19, the idea of “chance exposure” was what first sparked Robinson’s interest in bees. He said that he didn’t know what one did with honey bees, but after looking into it, he got a lot of good advice. It was his mother who encouraged him to further pursue his newfound interest from an academic angle.

Robinson described one of the most fascinating things about studying bees to be the the combination of chaos and order that one sees when looking inside a beehive. He said initially it looked really chaotic, but when really focusing there can be a tremendous amount of social order seen inside a beehive.

He moved on to the explain that honey bees live in one of the most complex societies on the planet that rival our own in terms of producing complex social behavior with a brain the size of a grass seed.

This is the real question Robinson is trying to answer: “How do the genes inside this tiny brain give rise to complex social behavior at the level of the individual, being with its complex repertoire of behavior, and at the level of the colony, all the individuals working together and making the decision together to be so functional?”

Studying this question is what makes honey bees such good models to study all brains in general, because their tiny brains achieve so much. A second benefit of working with honey bees is that they are also important as the greatest contributing pollinators on the planet. Robinson said they account for 15 billion dollars per year in agricultural productivity. A third of what people eat depends on honey bee pollination one way or the other.

A lot of the work Robinson does is becoming more relevant in recent years as the world learns more about bees. Robinson quotes famous entomologist Edward Wilson who said, “(Bees) rule the planet.” The awareness of the significance of the work that bees do is increasing in recent years, but this is because of sad reasons.

“The crisis that is caused because of the decline in the bee population now in the last 10 years has made the news time and time again,” said Robinson. “So we are living in a period of heightened awareness as people are worried about the bee decline and ever more appreciative of the important functions that bees play in securing our nation’s food supply and therefore our economy.”

The decline is caused by multiple factors. There are four factors contributing the decline in honey bees population: pesticides, parasites, pathogens and poor nutrition (the four P’s). A combination of two or more such factors contribute to the decline when they interact with one another in unpredictable ways. The agenda in applied bee research is to study how these factors are causing these severe effect on bee health at a molecular level.

Robinson’s lab’s main contributions have been to combine genomics with social behavior. One significant discovery has been that the social environment has an effect on the activity of genes in the brain. He said this helps to understand the nature of nurture and how the environment can affect the biology and the behavior.

“Our studies with honey bees have helped illuminate an understanding of nature and to re-formulate our understanding of nature and nurture so that it is no longer genes, and environment, but rather hereditary effects on brain gene activity — that’s nature, and environmental effects on brain gene activity — that’s nurture,” Robinson said.

When delving further into Robinson’s study of bee social behavior, he said one thing to be made clear is that bees are not little people and people are not big bees. That being said, there are a considerable amount of similarities between the two species in terms of behavior. Both bees and humans are social animals.

At the Carl Woese IGB, the thematic research group that Robinson’s lab is a part of Gene Networks in Neural and Developmental Plasticity. They have shown that there are molecular tool kits that underlie the functioning of social brains in different species, such as stickleback fish, mice, bees and even humans.

“There are gene networks that are functioning similarly in these different species to help organize the social brain,” Robinson said, “to give the animal the ability to respond to particular social stimuli.”

This discovery was made at the University, collaboratively, under the GNDP theme. Hence, an important research agenda is understanding what gene networks do and why they are so important for social responsiveness.

Currently, Robinson is working on a collaboration with Catchen. Their new work involves stickleback fish, bees and mice. Trying to look at deep evolutionary conservation between the three, the work they both are doing is building on a project that Robinson has already started with a few others.

“The idea is that these bees, mice and stickleback fish, their last common ancestor is very ancient,” Catchen said. “What we are doing is sort of challenging each organism with either a challenge or an opportunity behaviorally.”

This could be a predator or a bee from another colony, for example. They intend to compare the response in their brains to behavioral stimulation.  

As for future pursuits, Robinson believes one important area in the future is to combine two technological advances. The first advance includes all the techniques in genomics (now called omics), different kinds of analyses of genes of proteins of gene networks and understanding how genes influence the brain. The second part is the methods of automatically tracking behavior to get large behavioral data sets.

His lab has developed a system of bar-coding honey bees, which allows for them to automatically track and identify the bees’ behaviors.

This is going to allow for his experiments with very large sample sizes of individuals and very rich behavioral data to be able to connect the two forms of analyses,” Robinson said.

In addition to the inspiring work that he does running his laboratory, research on honey bees and as director of the IGB, something else that also inspires Professor Robinson is the Earth Bio Genome project, for which he is the co-leader.

“This project has announced the goal of sequencing the genomes of all life forms on the planet in 10 years,” said Robinson. “This is what we call a moonshot for biology. It is very exciting to be working on this, to encourage this, to develop the vision for this and to organize all the amazing efforts that are starting to come together to make this possible.”

Robinson’s impact on the University and insights in to his personality can be derived from what his colleagues and friends say about him.

Bruce Fouke, a professor in geology and microbiology at the IGB, similar to Robinson, is a long time faculty member. Fouke has worked very closely with Robinson ever since he became the director of the IGB. Fouke also served as the director of the Carver Biotechnology Center at the University, which is also housed in the IGB.

“(Robinson) is an exceptional person because he is one of the few people in the history of the earth that has the capacity to not only generate cutting edge science, but he is also very attuned to how people think together,” Fouke said. “He is very good at group dynamics and getting other people to work together and do great things.”

According to Fouke the theme is of the IGB is ‘where science meets society.’

“It takes someone with a vision from doing the science all the way to knowing how to communicate, connecting with people and very important issues,” said Fouke. “(Robinson) has the ability to cover that whole spectrum.”

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