Queen bees are much larger than worker bees, and live years longer, for one reason. They gorge on a sugary protein called "royal jelly." Now a scientist has made ultra-large flies using royal jelly too. Are humans next?
Sadly, it doesn't look like tomorrow we'll be creating giant women who live for hundreds of years by feeding human babies on royal jelly. But a biotechnology researcher in Japan, Masaki Kamakura, has discovered how one of the active ingredients in royal jelly - a protein called royalactin - makes queen bees. And he's done it by turning female flies into queens as well. It's a weird and fascinating breakthrough.
This week in the journal Nature, Kamakura explains how he figured out that royalactin is what causes two bees with identical DNA to turn into a queen or a worker. He did it giving royal jelly to fruitfly larva, to see whether this distant relative of the bee would also undergo a queenlike transformation. To his surprise, it did. He wrote:
[Fruitflies] reared with medium containing 20% royal jelly, 8% yeast and 10% D-glucose had an increase in body size (body weight and body length) and fecundity, and had extended lifespan and shortened developmental time compared to flies reared with control medium or casein.
The scientist was able to take advantage of the fact that scientists have experimented extensively with fruitfly genetics. It was therefore much easier to isolate the genes that were triggered by the royalactin, and figure out how the substance makes some bees into queens. Becoming a queen pretty much transforms an ordinary worker bee into a super being - queens grow into enormous adults at an accelerated rate, live 20 times longer than their counterparts, and are hyperfertile.
In Nature's The Great Beyond blog, Ewan Callaway reported on the finding:
"Finding the active components of royal jelly that are important for queen development has been kind of a holy grail of insect research for decades," says Gro Admam, an entomologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, who was not involved in the new paper.
All newly hatched honeybee larvae gorge on the heady mix of proteins, fats, sugars and vitamins. After three days, though, soon-to-be worker bees switch to a diet of honey, pollen and water, while the heirs to throne continue to eat royal jelly. This shift underpins the eusocial lifestyle of honeybees, in which sterile workers support a hyper-fertile queen, who grows much larger and lives about 20 times longer than workers.
Research from the 1960s suggested that royal jelly contained a potent neurochemical, while a 1972 paper highlighted developmental hormones. More recently, scientists identified a set of Major Royal Jelly Proteins, potentially involved in making queens . . . [In Kamakura's work] mutant flies hinted that royalactin was recognized by a protein called EGFR, which senses hormones called epidermal growth factors. Flies lacking EGFR or some of the proteins it communicates with got none of the growth or fertility benefits of royal jelly or royalactin, Kamakura found. Reducing the levels of the growth factor-sensing protein in honey bee larvae, meanwhile, prevented royal jelly-fed larvae from becoming queens.
This is the first time a researcher has used royal jelly to create queenlike traits in another insect. Knowing how royalactin works could shed light on the evolution of bees' social lives, with castes and division of labor.
And hopefully, we're closer to inventing a royal jelly for humans, something we could feed children that would help them live twenty times longer than they would otherwise.
Read the full article via Nature