Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered that
honey bees may teach us about basic connections between
taste perception and metabolic disorders in humans.
By experimenting with honey bee genetics, researchers have
identified connections between sugar sensitivity, diabetic
physiology and carbohydrate metabolism. Bees and humans may
partially share these connections.
In a study published in the open-access journal PLoS
Genetics (Public Library of Science), Gro Amdam, an
associate professor, and Ying Wang, a research scientist,
in the School of Life Sciences in ASU's College of Liberal
Arts and Sciences, explain how for the first time, they've
successfully inactivated two genes in the bees' "master
regulator" module that controls food-related behaviors. By
doing so, researchers discovered a possible molecular link
between sweet taste perception and the state of internal
"A bee's sensitivity to sugar reveals her attitude towards
food, how old the bee is when she starts searching for
nectar and pollen, and which kind of food she prefers to
collect," said Wang, the lead author of the paper. "By
suppressing these two 'master' genes, we discovered that
bees can become more sensitive to sweet taste. But
interestingly, those bees also had very high blood sugar
levels, and low levels of insulin, much like people who
have Type 1 diabetes."
In Amdam's honey bee lab at ASU, scientists suppressed two
genes including vitellogenin, which is similar to a human
gene called apolipoprotein B, and ultraspiracle, which
partners with an insect hormone that has some functions in
common with the human thyroid hormone. The team is the
first in the world to accomplish this double
gene-suppressing technique. Researchers used this method to
understand how the master regulator works.
"Now, if one can use the bees to understand how taste
perception and metabolic syndromes are connected, it's a
very useful tool," said Amdam, who also has a honey bee
laboratory at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
"Most of what we know about deficits in human perceptions
is from people who are very sick or have had a brain
trauma. We know shockingly little about people in this
The researchers are now considering how, exactly, the bees'
sweet taste was enhanced by the experiment. The most
metabolically active tissue of the bee, called the fat
body, may hold the key. The fat body is similar to the
liver and abdominal fat in humans, in that it helps store
nutrients and create energy.
Amdam explains that taste perception evolved as a survival
mechanism, for bees as well as for people. For example,
bitter foods may be poisonous or sweet taste may signal
foods rich in calories for energy. For all animals, taste
perception must communicate properly with one's internal
energetic state to control food intake and maintain normal
life functions. Without this, poorly functioning taste
perception can contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors and
metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity.
"From this study, we realized we can take advantage of
honey bees in understanding how food-related behaviors
interact with internal metabolism, as well as how to
manipulate these food-related behaviors in order to control
metabolic disorders," added Amdam.
In addition to Amdam and Wang, the team included former ASU
research partners Colin Brent, a research entomologist with
the USDA, and Erin Fennern, now with Oregon Health Science