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Research shows similar responses in honeybees and individuals with autism

By Isra Rahman, Staff Writer

At first glance, honeybees and humans could not be more different. However, new research indicates that there may be similarities between the behavioral traits of the two. In a study conducted by the Institute for Genomic Biology, researchers studied reaction trends in honeybees after they were exposed to different stimuli.

Postdoctoral fellow Michael Saul and entomology professor Gene Robinson tracked activity of honeybees after two different direct stimuli. The first stimulus placed an intruder bee in a hive and studied the response of the honeybees. The typical response of honeybees would be to gang up and attack the intruder. The second stimulus placed queen larvae in a hive. The response to this would be nursing and caring for the larvae.

In both cases, the bees either reacted as predicted in both or were unresponsive.

“These unresponsive honeybees made up 14 percent of the bees in the hive,” Saul said. “In those bees, we determined which genes were responding to which trait through analysis of gene expression.”

The method used to compare gene activity was analyzing the brains of the honeybees through RNA sequencing, which looks at the mRNA (the form of RNA that conveys genetic information) in a sample obtained from the honeybee. By looking at the mRNA, one can translate the mRNA codons to amino acid chains, and from amino acid chains to proteins, which are a product of genes.

The idea of using animal behavior to understand mental disorders in humans isn’t limited to just honeybees.

“This approach is a new way to understand mental health and disorders,” Saul said. “It is called the endophenotype approach, in which certain observable behaviors from human mental disorders are compared to traits within animals to understand the molecular component behind it.”

Given the vast spectrum of autism, research grows more complex, with 900 to 1,000 genes relevant to autism, according to Saul. In order to understand the significance of each of these genes, researchers like Saul use comparable genotypes in animals and humans to understand the realm of certain genes.

Researchers begin to pick at the 900 to 1,000 genes in order to establish some baseline of understanding. Saul quoted his colleague in saying, “Honeybees are not little people and people are not big honeybees.”

Similar genetic structures don’t necessarily mean clearly apparent similarities in physical appearance. Similarities in genes between honeybees and humans indicate patterns over evolutionary time that can potentially track back to diverging species, according to Saul.

The easy misconception from this research is assuming that the unresponsiveness of honeybees indicates an abnormality in their behavior. Unlike in autism, where unresponsiveness is a key part of the autism diagnosis, in honeybees it may be an unexplainable step in their life cycle.

“Unresponsiveness may be because we don’t know every role a bee has in the hive and how they differ in their social responses,” Saul said.

The behavior in honeybees may be ambiguous, but there are very clear outlines for the diagnosis of individuals with autism.

“A key component of autism diagnosis are communication problems and repetitive behaviors. Those two qualifications can place an individual on the spectrum depending on the extent to which they are present,” said Khalid Arshad, child psychiatrist at Duke University.

The spectrum diagnosis of autism makes it a very difficult disorder to tie to certain genes or parts of the brain. According to Arshad, there are so many molecular and genetic targets that the multifactorial causes lead to countless research obstacles.

Applying animal genetics to human disorders such as autism is one attempt by researchers to gain a deeper understanding of how social behavior relates to genetic irregularities.

“Recently, people have tried streamlining programs of early intervention in an attempt to correct social behavior before it becomes ingrained in molecular structure,” Arshad said. “However, until we can tie these to specific parts of the brain, we are still shooting in the dark.”

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