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Dr. Gene Robinson is the Swanlund Chair of Entomology, Director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, and Director of the Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his PhD in Entomology from Cornell University and joined the faculty of the University in 1989. Gene has received many awards and honors over the course of his career, including the Burroughs Wellcome Innovation Award in Functional Genomics, the Founders Memorial Award from the Entomological Society of America, a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NIH Pioneer Award. He is also a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, a Fellow of the Entomological Society of America, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and member of the US National Academy of Sciences. Gene is here with us today to tell us about his journey through life and science.
Dr. Robinson’s research group uses genomics and systems biology to study the mechanisms and evolution of social life, using the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, as the principal model system along with other species of bees. The research is integrative, involving perspectives from evolutionary biology, behavior, neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics. The goal is to explain the function and evolution of behavioral mechanisms that integrate the activity of individuals in a society, neural and neuroendocrine mechanisms that regulate behavior within the brain of the individual, and the genes that influence social behavior. Research focuses on division of labor, aggression, and the famous dance language, a system of symbolic communication. Current projects include: 1) nutritional regulation of brain gene expression and division of labor; 2) gene regulatory network analysis in solitary and social species to determine how brain reward systems change during social evolution; 3) brain metabolic plasticity and aggression; 4) automated monitoring of bee behavior with RFID tags and barcodes; and 5) learning and memory in relation to division of labor. In social evolution, the sophistication of neural and behavioral mechanisms for the essentials of life–food, shelter, and reproduction–stems from increased abilities to communicate and synchronize behavior with conspecifics. Social insects, especially honey bees, are thus exemplars for the discovery of general principles of brain function, behavior, and social organization.