A new study conducted by genetic researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that the regulatory gene Egr, known to be involved in learning and the detection of novelty in vertebrates, increases in activity in the brains of honey bees (Apis mellifera) when they are learning how to find food and bring it home.
The gene Egr is the insect equivalent of a transcription factor found in mammals. According to the scientists, activity of this gene quickly increases in a region of the brain known as the mushroom bodies whenever bees try to find their way around an unfamiliar environment.
The researchers found that the increased Egr activity did not occur as a result of exercise, the physical demands of learning to fly or the task of memorizing visual cues – it increased only in response to the bees’ exposure to an unfamiliar environment. Even seasoned foragers had an uptick in Egr activity when they had to learn how to navigate in a new environment.
“This discovery gives us an important lead in figuring out how honey bees are able to navigate so well, with such a tiny brain,” explained Prof Gene Robinson, senior author of the paper reporting the findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
“And finding that it’s Egr, with all that this gene is known to do in vertebrates, provides another demonstration that some of the molecular mechanisms underlying behavioral plasticity are deeply conserved in evolution.”
Bibliographic information: Claudia C. Lutz and Gene E. 2013. Robinson. Activity-dependent gene expression in honey bee mushroom bodies in response to orientation flight. J. Exp. Biol. 216, 2031-2038; doi: 10.1242/jeb.084905