Honeybee gene find ends 150-year search

The genetic signal that makes a honeybee male or female has been identified by researchers in Germany, the U.S. and Norway. The finding, published in the August 22 issue of the journal Cell, shows how male bees can have no father, a scientific puzzle going back over 150 years and the explanation for why bees, ants and wasps often form colonial societies. It could also make it easier to breed honeybees.

The researchers found that female bees have two different versions of a gene called csd, one from each parent, that form an active protein that triggers female development. Unfertilized eggs, which have only one copy of csd from the mother, default to being males.

In 1845, a Polish parish priest called Johann Dzierzon proposed that male bees have no fathers: They develop from unfertilized eggs, while females grow from fertilized eggs. Later work showed that Dzierzon was right. Male bees have half as many genes (haploid) as females, which get a set of genes from each parent (diploid). About one-fifth of animal species including all ants, bees and wasps use a similar haplodiploid system of sex determination, but the actual genes and mechanisms involved are not well understood.

Martin Beye and Martin Hasselmann from the Martin Luther University of Halle/Wittenberg, Germany, and Robert Page and Kim Fondrk at the University of California, Davis, isolated a honeybee gene called complementary sex determiner, or csd. Csd exists in 19 alternative versions, or alleles, Page said. Female bees have two copies of csd which are always different alleles. Males have only one copy.

The researchers worked out the DNA sequence of four csd alleles and found that they were highly variable. But the same alleles were found in both males and females, showing that there are no alleles for "maleness" or "femaleness."

Studies on developing eggs showed that in both males and females, the csd gene becomes active about 12 hours after eggs are laid and remain

Contact: Andy Fell
University of California - Davis

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