From the brains of the bees

Of bees and

credits: Ana Costa

From the brains of honeybees, we learned that epigenetics can control social behaviour and career changes.

Honeybee societies have intrigued us for a long time for their intricate organization. Many CEOs would like to know the secrets behind beehives’ structured hierarchy to replicate it in their own companies. More than management theories, neuroscience may be the answer: By studying the epigenetics of bees’ brains, scientists have found not only how the distinct behaviours are controlled, but also that they can be reversed!

While developing, one sister bee can become a queen, while the other sister will be a worker for her entire, considerably shorter, life. How is this achieved if these sisters share the same genetic code? At birth, all honeybees look identical and it is not clear which one will become a queen. In contrast with human royalty, bees do not inherit royal “blood”, meaning that the genes they carry will not dictate their social fate. A paper published back in October of 2012 has revealed that the secret is epigenetics, the alterations in DNA and its associated factors that are independent of the sequence of DNA itself. We all know that DNA is made of As and Ts, Cs and Gs, and even if we do not know what they mean, we understand that these letters form codes and those codes control the way organisms function. While studying the brains of honeybees, scientists have discovered that the DNA letters may be shared by a queen and a worker in the same hive; however, there are particular changes found in those letters that make all the difference*. Those are the epigenetic changes, in particular the epigenetic mark called DNA methylation.

Whereas the difference between queens and workers could not be explained in the referred paper, differences between workers with different roles in society became more obvious. For that, scientists compared the brains of nurses with the brains of foragers to conclude that DNA methylation was different between these two subcastes. More importantly, when foragers were compelled to switch to nurses, DNA methylation switched as well. The authors concluded that there are epigenetic patterns associated with the different subcastes and that those are reversible.

There are at least two reasons for this to be one of the most important pieces of work published recently, and you may be guessing why… One, these observations are fundamental in that they explain the principles through which different characteristics – behavioural, morphological, of lifespan – can arise from the same sequence of DNA. Two, they are seminal because they showed for the first time that well-defined, securely-established patterns of behaviour are not free from change: epigenetics carries the key to life’s turning points, which may include your long-awaited career change.

*The conventional definition of Epigenetics implies heritability through generations; here, the concept is used in a more “relaxed” way, meaning that the need for inheritance is not stressed.

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