Bee research sheds light on human sweet perception, metabolic disorders

June 28, 2012

Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered that honey bees may teach us about basic connections between taste perception and metabolic disorders in humans.

By experimenting with honey bee genetics, researchers have identified connections between sugar sensitivity, diabetic physiology and carbohydrate metabolism. Bees and humans may partially share these connections. A new-born honey bee worker (Apis mellifera) breaks free from her nursery chambe Download Full Image

In a study published in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics (Public Library of Science), Gro Amdam, an associate professor, and Ying Wang, a research scientist, in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, explain how for the first time, they’ve successfully inactivated two genes in the bees’ “master regulator” module that controls food-related behaviors. By doing so, researchers discovered a possible molecular link between sweet taste perception and the state of internal energy.

“A bee’s sensitivity to sugar reveals her attitude towards food, how old the bee is when she starts searching for nectar and pollen, and which kind of food she prefers to collect,” said Wang, the lead author of the paper. “By suppressing these two ‘master’ genes, we discovered that bees can become more sensitive to sweet taste. But interestingly, those bees also had very high blood sugar levels, and low levels of insulin, much like people who have Type 1 diabetes.”

In Amdam’s honey bee lab at ASU, scientists suppressed two genes including vitellogenin, which is similar to a human gene called apolipoprotein B, and ultraspiracle, which partners with an insect hormone that has some functions in common with the human thyroid hormone. The team is the first in the world to accomplish this double gene-suppressing technique. Researchers used this method to understand how the master regulator works. 

“Now, if one can use the bees to understand how taste perception and metabolic syndromes are connected, it’s a very useful tool,” said Amdam, who also has a honey bee laboratory at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “Most of what we know about deficits in human perceptions is from people who are very sick or have had a brain trauma. We know shockingly little about people in this area.”

The researchers are now considering how, exactly, the bees’ sweet taste was enhanced by the experiment. The most metabolically active tissue of the bee, called the fat body, may hold the key. The fat body is similar to the liver and abdominal fat in humans, in that it helps store nutrients and create energy. 

Amdam explains that taste perception evolved as a survival mechanism, for bees as well as for people. For example, bitter foods may be poisonous or sweet taste may signal foods rich in calories for energy. For all animals, taste perception must communicate properly with one’s internal energetic state to control food intake and maintain normal life functions. Without this, poorly functioning taste perception can contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors and metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity.

“From this study, we realized we can take advantage of honey bees in understanding how food-related behaviors interact with internal metabolism, as well as how to manipulate these food-related behaviors in order to control metabolic disorders,” added Amdam. 

In addition to Amdam and Wang, the team included former ASU research partners Colin Brent, a research entomologist with the USDA, and Erin Fennern, now with Oregon Health Science University.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU launches global classroom, challenges traditional learning

June 28, 2012

Arizona State University, in coordination with Leuphana University in Germany, has launched an educational pilot project that will lay the groundwork for an intensive institutional collaboration in undergraduate education.

Funded by a $900,000 award from the Mercator Foundation, the ASU-Leuphana program will focus on the topic “Sustainable Cities: Contradiction of Terms?” The program will utilize virtual conferencing using the technology of Vidyo, a revolutionary video conferencing platform; intensive writing assignments and student writing workshops; online exhibits; peer-to-peer mentoring and in-person international exchange. President's Professor Manfred Laubichler Download Full Image

This “global classroom” model tests traditional teacher-student roles; advances new, blended approaches to curriculum and teaching; and redefines the rules tying interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences education to “place.”

"Any good idea or revolution has started in a bar or coffee house, not a lecture hall,” said Manfred Laubichler, co-author of the Mercator grant and a President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “This project is basically a way to recreate this in a virtual environment."

Vidyo technology was adopted by ASU for use in classrooms in 2010. These virtual conferencing connections have catalyzed research and science education exchange between ASU, the Smithsonian Institution and local K-12 classrooms, and set the online stage for the project with Leuphana.

A workshop in Germany at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin drew ASU professors Laubichler, Robert Page, Jane Maienschein, James Collins, Richard Creath and Daniel Sarewitz to meet with their German counterparts. These included Yehuda Elkana, president and rector emeritus of the Central European University; Sascha Spoun, the president of Leuphana University; and representatives from Stiftung Mercator, who invest in educational projects. Together this collective considered how to transform our traditional approach to education into a new model using virtual technology and an international and interdisciplinary pedagogy suited for the 21st century.

“One of the things that we discussed was how knowledge is socially, geographically and temporally contextual. That is, that all knowledge has context,” said Robert Page, ASU vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“So we asked, ‘what if as we teach about sustainability, conservation biology, science, humanities and culture, we have students from Europe, South America, China and the U.S. all talking together?’” said Page. “There would be differing views and the sharing of those views might allow students to develop solutions to challenges that none could have conceived of individually. And so was born the concept of a global classroom.”

Starting in January of 2013, undergraduate students from Leuphana University – considered the “ASU of the EU” – ASU’s Barrett Honors College, the School of Life Sciences, and the School of Sustainability will define and work together on group projects that extend over three semesters. To support the collective effort, students also will pursue individual research activities at their home institutions. The result will be individual edited short papers by each student and a set of collective exhibits to be published through a digital educational repository that the group is developing.

Ben Minteer, an associate professor in environmental ethics and policy; Arnim Wiek, an assistant professor in sustainability; and Charles Kazilek, an assistant dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who develops award-winning internet science education materials, also will contribute to the Mercator program.

In addition, as the next cohort of students enters during the program’s second year, the first year’s cohort will serve as peer mentors to the incoming group. This reinforcing investment from one cohort to the next allows the instructors to teach more, and the students to have a more interactive learner-oriented experience.

Graduate students in Germany and with ASU’s Center for Biology and Society and ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability will serve as co-instructors for the Mercator project. At ASU, these students will include Sean Cohmer, Guido Caniglia, Katherine MacCord and Julia Damerow, who studies digital history and philosophy of sciences and also works with the Max Planck Institute.

“We’ve found that when we have graduate students as part of the teaching team, working directly with students on their projects, the undergraduates feel less intimidated and less worried about contacting those graduate students, and that, in turn, makes them more comfortable talking to the faculty members as well,” said Maienschein, a Regents’ Professor and one of three ASU President’s Professors on the project. “I think that’s really important because it helps us build a team in which we all learn from each other.” 

The curriculum for the Mercator program evolved from the active research and writing-intensive activities developed and tested by Maienschein and Laubichler at ASU and implements the principles of the Curriculum Reform Manifesto developed by an international group of scholars, including Laubichler, Page and Elkana. Investment in new approaches to teaching and learning also spurred Laubichler to co-author the Mercator grant with Nils Ole Oermann, vice president of Leuphana University.

“What we are doing is using technology to build different forms of online learning communities," Laubichler said. "Vidyo technology is designed to invite, to bring people together to have personal interactions that allow new ideas to materialize. Vidyo allows the students themselves to form their own communities. In that sense, it is very different from typical online learning, which is structured, with discussion boards, etc.”

A number of reform-minded institutions are watching the ASU team’s progress with interest, said Laubichler, who also directs ASU’s Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity and is the associate director of the ASU Origins Project. He has identified and met with other potential partners in Germany, Holland and Israel. If this approach works, he said, ASU also might extend the model to build new types of educational connections between the United States and China.

Maienschein, who is also the director of the Center for Biology and Society, added: “By teaching in this way, and by building this international virtual community, student cohorts, and resulting published exhibits of this project, will change the way that teaching and learning is done in really profound ways for all of us.”

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost