iSGTW Feature - To bee, or not to bee? Bee society and the human condition

Feature - To bee or not to bee? Bee society and the human condition

The honey bee's "waggle dance" is the only symbolic language found beyond the primates. New genomic data yielded by grid-powered research could help reveal the basis for this and other social interactions.
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The humble honey bee: pollinator, producer of honey, and potential key to unlocking the secrets of human social interaction.

Why is it some bees can be queen? How can a nurse bee suddenly transform into a forager, just when foragers are needed most? And how can these furry flying insects cast light on our own human behaviors?

The answers lie in the interactions of genes in the honey bee genome. And Saurabh Sinha needs grid computing to seek these answers out.

"The honey bee can be a model to understand complex societies," explains Sinha, a professor of computer science and affiliate of the University of Illinois's Institute for Genomic Biology.

"By studying the social regulation of gene expression, we hope to extrapolate the biology to humans."

"It's not as if a particular honey bee behavior is exactly mapped in humans," he says. "But, if we can discover some general principles for the genetic basis of social behavior, we hope they will largely carry forward to human behavior."

Preliminary evidence suggests that social changes may be triggered by age or social cues, and are enforced by the complex interactions of several hundred of more than 10,000 honey bee genes.

Which genes are interacting? Saurabh Sinha is using grid computing to find out.

Honey bees (Apis millifera) have been key to studies of human immunity, allergic reaction, antibiotic resistance, mental health, social behavior and longevity.

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"We know maybe 500 genes control the other 10,000 genes," explains Sinha. "Considering even pairwise interactions, we're looking at five million potential interactions, only some of which actually exist. When you're trying to probe whether genes X, Y and Z together control gene alpha, the numbers grow very fast."

Sinha has already published some preliminary work; his request for grid access was prompted by the need for improved computing power.

"It takes a few seconds to probe each interaction, so the whole run will take a long time. We're also trying to develop the right methods, so we might run the program for a month and realize the parameters are not quite right."

Sinha says meeting the computational challenges presented by this research will also help future researchers. "This can help in trying to address different questions in the fruit fly, for example, which also receives a lot of attention as a biological model."

Sinha will have access to TeraGrid from August 2007 and is funded for one year by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.

"I anticipate a year of hard work," he smiles. "It's a very exciting time."

- Cristy Burne, iSGTW