Insect epigenetics is a very active field but it is still unclear how basic epigenetics works in insects. DNA methylation (a methyl group of atoms) and modifying histone proteins (those around which DNA is packed in the cell) change how DNA is used. As yet, no study has systemically measured the altered DNA methylation and the resultant changes, and the lack of clarity for the role of DNA methylation in insects is a major road block to the study of epigenetics.
Our project represents a major advance in understanding DNA methylation's role, as it is the first to disrupt genome-wide methylation and systematically measure the various epigenetic effectors by advanced, modern sequencing.
Bees' relatively small genomes are less than 1% methylated, compared to humans genomes with 70% methylation. The sparse methylation of the bumblebee genome simplifies any analysis. However, methylation has been shown to have a fundamental role in bees' social biology and response to the environment.
In recent years, epigenetics has shown to play a role in the interplay between man-made chemicals and natural ecosystems, and their constituent species. The role of insect pollinators in feeding a growing population and their recent declines is explicitly mentioned in the British Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) 'bioscience for sustainable agriculture' strategic challenge.
Bumblebees are among the most important wild pollinators in the temperate Northern Hemisphere and at least 25 major crops grown within the EU are visited by bumblebees. Collectively, insect pollination services are worth 14.2 billion euros to Europe's economy. In the UK, 52% of the surveyed areas have experienced a decline in bee-species richness since 1980. Around 11% of bumblebee species are listed as 'near threatened' or above using the IUCN Red List criteria.
It is therefore vital that we understand this fundamental molecular mechanism in these most important of species.
Insects as a model
Following the advances of other epigenetics labs in targeted DNA methylation editing in mice, our grant will allow us to develop a system to allow targeted DNA methylation editing in an insect model.
The power of an insect model can be gauged by the huge amount of genetics research carried out in the fruit fly, Drosophila. Because Drosophila does not seem to use DNA methylation, we propose that the jewel wasp Nasonia, a new model insect, could become the epigenetic workhorse just as Drosophila is the genetic one.
With thanks to our funders, see below a list of grants towards our research.