Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The latest genomics buzz

The latest buzz in genomics is about the honeybee genome. The people working on this genome have really done a good job of organizing themselves (a sort of model social genomics network in a way). They have a veritable slew of papers coming out this week on various things about the genome and about honeybees that were learned by making use of the genome.

There is an entire issue of Genome Research dedicated to studies of the honeybee (see the press release here) including papers on rates of evolution, circadian rhythms, chemical sensing, sex and death (of course), and even the royal jelly. If you don't know what royal jelly is, do a google search for that. There is also an overview article in Nature and a genome report in Science. In total 170 researchers were involved in these papers.

Mind you, I am disappointed that these were not published in Open Access journals. And this is particularly sad given that the funding came from the NHGRI, the same group of sanctimonious individuals who kept talking about how the "public" human genome project was "open" in every way for the betterment of humanity. Unfortunately, what they mean by "open" even for the human genome project is a bit of a misnomer. They meant that people could look at the data immediately. But they restricted how people could use the data, despite their attempts to pretend otherwise. Consistent with this, the groups funded by the NHGRI generally do not publish their papers in Open Access journals. Shame shame shame.

OK, enough sniping. The honeybee is so fascinating biologically in so many ways that this genome sequence deserves a bit of extra attention. First, honeybees are social creatures. They have in fact been one of the key models in studying both the evolution of social behavior but also communication among organisms.

Another aspect of their biology that is very interesting is their genetic structure. Like other hymenoptera they have what is know as a haplodiploid life cycle with males being haploid (the result of unertilized eggs) and the females being diploid. This unusual genetics is another reason that honeybees and other hymenoptera have been studied extensively by biologists for many years. In fact, a great little bit of history about this is in a book on the history of studies of altruism from Princeton University press. One of Darwin's biggest concerns in the origin of life related to the self sacrifical behavior, especially that in honeybee colonies. Apparently, honeybees were a topic of conversation among non scientists and the non reproductive worker castes were well known to the public. Darwin struggled quite a bit to come up with a good explanation that was consistent with natural selection for why some individuals would sacrifice their lives for others.

Dawrin actually cam up with a good logical explanation for this - that some individuals would sacrifice if they were related to others who would benefit. Bees and their relatives played a large part in studies that have revealed in much greater detail how altruism can evolve. They may not be as warm and fizzy as some other organisms being sequenced, but they certainly were a good pick for a genome sequencing project.

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