Wednesday 24 November 2010

Ep 137: Can your environment change your DNA?

Did you know that worker bees and queen bees have exactly the same DNA?

Although they look and behave differently, at birth they have the same genome. Young queen larvae are fed a diet of Royal Jelly, a substance secreted by the worker bees which includes B-complex vitamins, proteins, sugars and fatty acids. It also contains trace minerals, enzymes, antibacterial and antibiotic components, and vitamin C. This concoction not only feeds the queen bees, it turns on and off various genes with what are known as epigenetic effects. Epigenetic effects - meaning "above the genome" - alter gene expression without affecting the baseline genetic code. They are the reason why cells in different parts of the body do different things. For example, liver genes are turned on in your liver but not elsewhere, even though every cell in your body contains all your DNA information. For humans, much of this happens when we are embryos before we are born, with various chemical signals switching on and off genes in various parts of the body.

The recent report The Honey Bee Epigenomes: Differential Methylation of Brain DNA in Queens and Workers, by Professor Ryszard Maleszka from The Australian National University’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment and colleagues, details the extensive molecular differences in over 550 genes in the brains of worker and queen bees as a result of queen bee feeding with royal jelly.

The work is quite profound as it is a step towards understanding how our environment can change our DNA. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests some epigenetic traits may be passed on to following generations rather than just affecting the individual, and this could drastically change our understanding of the process of evolution. The work also has implications for the nature vs. nurture debate, if indeed our nurture can actually change our DNA - that is, our nature.

I had a fascinating chat to Ryszard about this study, the future of this work and his opinions on how this may change our understanding of evolution. Listen in to this show here (or press play below):

Please excuse the noise in the recording of the phone call.

Lyko F, Foret S, Kucharski R, Wolf S, Falckenhayn C, & Maleszka R (2010). The honey bee epigenomes: differential methylation of brain DNA in queens and workers. PLoS biology, 8 (11) PMID: 21072239


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