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Breeding success by delving into the honey bee sex gene

A research team led by University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Jianzhi "George" Zhang, has uncovered evolutionary //facts about a gene called csd, which is a sex determiner in honey bees. These novel inputs can indeed be ploughed back into formulation of improved methods to breed honeybees, who are effective pollinators of crops that are valuable to the economy. The findings of Zhang and collaborators are published in a special issue of Genome Research exclusively dedicated to the biology of the honey bee. The issue will be available online and in print Oct. 26.

Scientists have long known that in bees—as well as wasps, ants, ticks, mites and some 20 percent of all animals—unfertilized eggs develop into males, while females typically result from fertilized eggs. But that's not the whole story, and the discovery in 2003 of csd (the complementary sex determination gene) helped fill in the blanks. The gene has many versions, or alleles. Males inherit a single copy of the gene; bees that inherit two copies, each a different version, become female. Bees that have the misfortune of inheriting two identical copies of csd develop into sterile males but are quickly eaten at the larval stage by female worker bees.

The system works fine in nature, where it prevents the colony from wasting precious energy and resources on abnormal males incapable of carrying out the all-important role of mating. But in bees raised for honey or for pollinating crops, the sex-determination system can cause problems. Beekeepers inbreed bees to select desirable traits, but inbreeding raises the odds of producing fertilized eggs with two copies of the same csd allele. If too many sterile males result, the colony may die out.

"If we know more details about how many alleles there are and what their frequencies are, bee breeders can design better strategies to avoid producing sterile males," Zhang said. "Our work aids in this effort by providing a direct tool to
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