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Funct Ecol. 2008;22(3):407-421.

Ageing in a eusocial insect: molecular and physiological characteristics of life span plasticity in the honey bee.

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1
Department of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, P.O. Box 5003, N-1432 Aas, Norway.

Abstract

Commonly held views assume that ageing, or senescence, represents an inevitable, passive, and random decline in function that is strongly linked to chronological age. In recent years, genetic intervention of life span regulating pathways, for example, in Drosophila as well as case studies in non-classical animal models, have provided compelling evidence to challenge these views.Rather than comprehensively revisiting studies on the established genetic model systems of ageing, we here focus on an alternative model organism with a wild type (unselected genotype) characterized by a unique diversity in longevity - the honey bee.Honey bee (Apis mellifera) life span varies from a few weeks to more than 2 years. This plasticity is largely controlled by environmental factors. Thereby, although individuals are closely related genetically, distinct life histories can emerge as a function of social environmental change.Another remarkable feature of the honey bee is the occurrence of reverted behavioural ontogeny in the worker (female helper) caste. This behavioural peculiarity is associated with alterations in somatic maintenance functions that are indicative of reverted senescence. Thus, although intraspecific variation in organismal life span is not uncommon, the honey bee holds great promise for gaining insights into regulatory pathways that can shape the time-course of ageing by delaying, halting or even reversing processes of senescence. These aspects provide the setting of our review.We will highlight comparative findings from Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans in particular, and focus on knowledge spanning from molecular- to behavioural-senescence to elucidate how the honey bee can contribute to novel insights into regulatory mechanisms that underlie plasticity and robustness or irreversibility in ageing.

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