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Student Research Spotlight - Aine O'Sullivan

Posted: February 27, 2015

This is the 1st of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Off the beaten Path-way: New Research on Co-Opted Biochemical Pathways in Social Insects
by Sarah Shugrue

Here’s a riddle for you: If you’re taking the same path, how can you end up at two very different places? No, this isn’t a philosophical question and yes, there will be a correct answer. All insects have a juvenile hormone pathway, a cascading set of interactions between hormones, proteins, and genes that trigger a physiological or behavioral change. But that change can vary greatly among insects. Aine O’Sullivan, a PhD student in the Grozinger Lab at Penn State, is trying to answer that riddle by studying a major player in this biochemical pathway and how it produces distinct behaviors in insects. According to O’Sullivan, evolution works by creating new genes and mutations, but also by co-opting, or reusing, genes that are already there for new purposes.

“We think that this pathway has changed during the evolution of social behavior to be involved in different behaviors,” says O’Sullivan. In honey bees this pathway dictates an individual’s job in the hive, and in bumble bees it’s tied to aggression. To better understand this biochemical pathway, O’Sullivan will be studying Kr-h1, a pathway intermediate, and its interactions with the major hormones. To do this, she will be deactivating the gene and observing the effects on the major hormones products in the pathway, physiology, and ultimately behavior.

The study of these co-opted pathways is new to science; it originated in evolutionary developmental biology where studies of co-opted genes were used to understand evolutionary changes and even clarify species relationships.

“It’s a really neat way to learn about how mechanisms of evolution create diversity, but it’s also a cool approach to study the regulation of behavior in social insects,” she says. A better understanding of this biochemical pathway could really improve our knowledge of bee behavior, and help us solve that riddle of course!