Since renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") introduced the concept of the 'selfish gene' in 1976, scientists the world over have hailed the theory as a natural extension to the work of Charles Darwin.
In studying genomes, the word 'selfish' does not refer to the human-describing adjective of self-centered behavior but rather to the blind tendency of genes wanting to continue their existence into the next generation. Ironically, this 'selfish' tendency can appear anything but selfish when the gene does move ahead for selfless and even self-sacrificing reasons.
For instance, in the honey bee colony, a complex social breeding system described as a 'super-organism,' the female worker bees are sterile. The adult queen bee, selected and developed by the worker bees, is left to mate with the male drones.
Because the 'selfish' gene controlling worker sterility has never been isolated by scientists, the understanding of how reproductive altruism can evolve has been entirely theoretical – until now.
Working with Peter Oxley of the University of Sydney in Australia, Western biology professor Graham Thompson has, for the first time-ever, isolated a region on the honey bee genome that houses this 'selfish' gene in female workers bees.
This means that the 'selfish' gene does exist, not just in theory but in reality. "We don't know exactly which gene it is, but we're getting close."
"This basically provides a validation for a huge body of socio-biology," says Thompson, who adds the completion of Honey Bee Genome Project in 2006 was crucial to this discovery.
Jeff Renaud | EurekAlert!
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