In the wake of widespread declines in bee populations, farmers and beekeepers are wondering who exactly is going to pollinate that third of the world’s food crops which require pollination. The declines have been attributed to pesticides, parasites and climate change.
In Europe one response has been to phase out a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The phase-out has coincided with a revival of bee populations. But pesticides are clearly not the only factor affecting bee health.
Another response has been to consider building a better bee. Enter the geneticists. Why not genetically engineer honeybees to resist those things which are undermining their health?
That seems a little like suggesting that we take carbon out of the atmosphere to address climate change without doing anything about the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere.
Moreover, the original idea behind the genetic engineering of bees is the same as that behind plants and even humans: One gene equals one trait. It turns out there are three problems with this idea. First, genes are multitaskers in honey bees (and in humans, too). That means genes can make more than one kind of protein which means that the idea that one gene always equals one trait has long since been disproved. Second, gene expression depends on a number epigeneticfactors, that is, factors that occur during the development of the organism. Third, the term “trait” has the problem that all words have. It’s ambiguous. (And, if you tell me “trait” has a very precise definition in genetics, then you will almost certainly use words to convey that definition.)
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