Honey bees that display antisocial behavior — such as sitting around and rarely interacting with their hive — share a genetic profile with people who suffer from autism, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Illinois have found that these unresponsive insects ultimately have the same fundamental characteristics as autistic humans, including a similar lack of social awareness.
Their findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appear to be proof that members of the animal kingdom share the same molecular heritage as man, the scientists say.
“We figured out a way to make an unbiased statistical test that will tell us whether a human gene list and a honey bee gene list overlap more or less than expected by chance,” explained Michael Saul, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study with statistics professor Sihai D. Zhao and entomology professor Gene Robinson.
“Our data are telling us that social unresponsiveness does have some common molecular characteristics in these distantly related species,” said Robinson, who led the study.
“It’s important to point out some caveats,” he added. “Humans are not big bees and bees are not little humans. The social responsiveness depends on context, and is different in the two cases. Autism spectrum disorder is very complex, and unresponsiveness is not the only behavior associated with it.”
For the study, Robinson and his colleagues analyzed 246 groups of bees from seven genetically different honey bee colonies. They tested each insect in various social contexts and then looked at the levels of gene expression in their brains.
While most bees fall somewhere in the highly engaged to moderately engaged camp, a small subset that was tested by the researchers were either always active or always still.
Through the unbiased statistical testing, the team discovered a significant overlap between the gene expression profile of the bees that weren’t responding — and genes closely associated with people who are autistic.
There was no overlap, however, when it came to depression, schizophrenia or other mental disorders.
“What really excites me about this study is that there appears to be this kernel of similarity between us and honey bees, a common animal inheritance that potentially drives social behavior in similar ways,” Saul said. “We haven’t proved this, but this work is telling us where to look for that in the…