Bee study earns medical award

By Daniel Renteria, Contributing Writer

Gene Robinson, professor in LAS, has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine for his research on the relationship between genes and social interactions through the study of honeybees.

NAM announced the election of 85 new members who have made significant contributions to different fields of medicine on Oct. 15.

Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, was the only University professor selected this year.

Much of Robinson’s work revolves around honeybees. He has been involved in discovering genes that affect the behaviors of honeybees and lead the project to completely map the honeybee’s genome, which may be scaled to predict human behaviors.

“I’ve been very interested in understanding this in honeybees, and also in using this information to be able to draw general insights that scale across bees and don’t apply to just bees, but to other creatures as well,” Robinson said.

May Berenbaum, professor in LAS and head of the Department of Entomology, said it is rare for a bee researcher to be granted an award in medicine.

Berenbaum compared Robinson’s election to the NAM to Karl von Frisch’s 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Frisch was an animal behaviorist who studied bees.

“People don’t typically think of honeybees and human health or medicine in the same sentence,” she said.

Berenbaum said Robinson was the primary leader of the bee genome project early on. He revolutionized bee research and enabled researchers to answer many difficult questions about genes and social interactions, Berenbaum said.

“Gene is the world leader in studying the genomics underlying behavior, and he uses bees as his model organism,” said James Collins, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and external adviser to the IGB.

Robinson said he was thrilled and honored when he was notified of his election to NAM.

“We have several other members on campus in that group and I was just so excited to get the news,” he said.

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