Imagine, my galleons, that you could squinch up your eyes and BAM! rewrite your genetic code. A quick change here, a little alteration there, and when you open your eyes again, you’re… different.
Turns out, if you’re a bee, you can do something very similar.
See, when worker honeybees blink their little bee eyes and take their first little bee breaths and start their little bee lives in the world, they start them as nurses. Nurse bees take care of the queen and her young, feeding them and tending to them, like little bee handmaids. Give those little nurses a few weeks, however, and most of them will start switching over to a forager role.
But nursing and foraging are two very different skill sets for the little beelings, and switching between the two roles requires the bees to switch huge swathes of genes on/off (up to 150 genes, in fact). Which is, of course, fascinating. And so, scientists decided to study the crap out of that.
The scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore let their little worker bees do their nursing job, waiting for them to switch over to foragers. Once the change to forager had been made, the scientists emptied the hive of all the nurses. When the foragers returned to the hive to find their queen and her laravae unattended, many switched back to nurses. During this the whole process, the scientists scanned the DNA of the little bee brains.
What they found was evidence of epigenetic modification, which is a nifty way to essentially flip genetic switches by either placing or removing methyl tags. Methylation doesn’t actually alter the underlying genome, it just allows large chunks of genes to be switched on or off. And the process is entirely reversible.
So, when the bees originally switched from nurse to forager, little methyl tags were popped on a bunch of their genes, switching their function from the nurse duties to the forager tasks. But when the hive needed nurses, the methyl tags were removed, and the bees swapped back to their nursing duties. Brain rebooted and crisis averted.
This is the first evidence of an epigenetic modification being directly linked to a reversible behavior. And why is this so interesting? Why, it turns out many disorders (from addiction to obesity to aging to bipolar disorder) have an epigenetic component. The more we know about how this process works, the closer we get to potentially figuring out how to reverse these disorders.
Pretty cunning, don’t you think?