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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

The Honey Bee: An Emerging Model for Epigenetics

Project description

Insect pollinators play a crucial role in most ecosystems and strongly influence ecological relationships, stability, genetic variation in plants and floral diversity. Moreover, in farmed areas, bees in particular are needed for the pollination of a variety of cultivated crops. The honeybee is used extensively for commercial pollination and it is estimated that the economic value worldwide of bee pollinators is 153 billion euros. This represents 9.5% of the value of world agricultural production used for human food. Since the honeybee occupies a crucial role in normal ecosystem function and has commercial importance, understanding the molecular biology of this organism has huge significance to human wellbeing.

Epigenetic mechanisms represent a dynamic interface between the genome of an organism and the environment, providing a mechanism for environmentally driven phenotypic plasticity. The honeybee is an excellent model since its genome encodes three distinct but genetically indistinguishable organisms or main castes (queens, sterile female workers and haploid male drones) with dramatically different physiologies, morphologies, phenotypes, diets and behaviours. This phenotypic polymorphism represents one of the most striking examples of plasticity in any phylum.

Epigenetic processes involve a complex interplay between histone post-translational modifications (mainly lysine methylations and acetylations) and DNA modifications, within a highly dynamic structure called chromatin. The epigenomic landscape of a cell is an outcome of a balance between enzymes that either introduce or remove chromatin modifications. There is a growing body of evidence that the direct modulation of epigenetic modifications can be specifically controlled by diet, since the activity of epigenetic modifying enzymes is dependent on metabolites.    

The Hurd lab was the first to characterise distinct histone post-translational modifications in the honeybee and show caste-specific differences in chromatin structure. We produce experimental models and data that describe aspects of honeybee development, genome plasticity, behaviour and nutrition-genome interactions. To do this we use state-of-the-art genomic, computational and molecular tools in combination with hands-on apiculture. Currently funded by the BBSRC and Royal Society, and with 8 research hives on-site, you will work alongside a small team focussing on how larval nutrition and pesticides dictate developmental outcome and adult behaviour.


Training in a wide-range of research techniques will be provided, including bee keeping, molecular biology, biochemistry, epigenomics and transcriptomics.

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