Longevity Briefs: Can Social Insects Like Bees Help Us Understand Why We Age?

Posted on 26 March 2021

Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Why do some species live longer than others? Across species, greater longevity is generally associated with reduced fecundity: the slower a species reproduces, the longer organisms of that species will tend to live. This relationship even tends to hold true within species; for example, red deer age faster if they reproduce younger. Exceptions to this ‘rule’ can be found in social insects that live in colonies such as bees, ants and termites. In these species, the reproducing queens live many times longer than their non-reproductive offspring, despite being genetically very similar (or in some species, genetically identical). Furthermore, individual insects within the colony age faster or more slowly depending on their assigned job.

These effects on ageing are malleable. For example, in the ant species C. obscurior, queens that mate live on average 44% longer than those that don’t. Forager bees age more rapidly than nurse bees, but bees that switch jobs from foraging to nursing experience a reversal of the ageing process. This raises the question: what controls the lifespan of these insects, and can the answer teach us anything about ageing in other species?

What can ants, bees, and other social insects teach us about aging?

What did the researchers do: In this study, researchers compared the expression of genes in young and old insects from six species of ants, bees, and termites. They measured the activity of two biochemical pathways involved in sensing nutrients and regulating cell growth. It is well established that these pathways are involved in regulating ageing in other insects, but not in social insects.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Researchers identified specific genes and proteins within the aforementioned pathways that were in fact strongly associated with ageing in social insects. These pathway components exist in other animals but have been largely neglected in ageing research. This highlights the need to study ageing in a wide range of species, as this may help us to identify regulators of ageing whose importance or existence is not yet recognised.

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What can ants, bees, and other social insects teach us about aging?: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/03/what-can-ants-bees-and-other-social-insects-teach-us-about-aging

Comparative transcriptomic analysis of the mechanisms underpinning ageing and fecundity in social insects: https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0728

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