A research team led by scientists from Wayne State University in Detroit, in collaboration with scientists from Michigan State University (MSU), has identified a single gene in honeybees that separates the queens from the workers. The scientists unraveled the gene's inner workings and published the results in the January 2014 issue of Biology Letters. The gene, which is responsible for leg and wing development, plays a crucial role in the evolution of bees' ability to carry pollen. "The gene — Ultrabithorax, or Ubx — is responsible for making hind legs different from fore legs so they can carry pollen" said Dr. Aleksandar Popadic, associate professor of biological sciences in Wayne State University's College of Liberal Arts and Science and principal investigator of the study. "In some groups, like crickets, Ubx is responsible for creating a 'jumping' hind leg. In others, such as bees, it makes a pollen basket — a 'naked,' bristle-free leg region that creates a space for packing pollen." "Other studies have shed some light on this gene's role in this realm, but our team examined in great detail how the modifications take place," added Dr. Zachary Huang, an MSU entomologist. Ubx represses the development of bristles on bees' hind legs, creating a smooth surface that can be used for packing pollen. This important discovery can be used as a foray into more commercial studies focused on providing means to enhance a bee's pollination ability – the bigger the pollen basket, the more pollen that can be packed in it and transported back to the hive. While workers have these distinct features, queens do not. The team confirmed this by isolating and silencing Ubx. This made the pollen baskets completely disappear, altered the growth of the pollen comb, and reduced the size of the pollen press.
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