Wolf Prize Laureate in Agriculture 2018
Affiliation at the time of the award:
University of Illinois, USA
“for leading the genome revolution in the biology of honey bee populations”.
The honey bee plays a vital role sustaining agriculture and plant life on earth. About one-third of the food consumed by humanity is a direct product of pollination by honey bees of more than 100 important crops, including most of the world’s almonds, soybeans, buckwheat, and cotton. Their great importance to agriculture and their complex social structure make honey bees a critical subject for biological and agricultural research.
Gene Robinson, born in 1955, received a doctorate from Cornell University in 1986 and three years later joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where, since 2011 he has headed of the Carl W. Weiss Institute for Genomic Biology as well as the Institute for Bee Research, since 1990. Robinson is a pioneer in the application of genomics – the field of genetics that deals with the sum total of genetic material, the genome of living organisms – to study social behaviour. In addition, Robinson led the effort to sequence the genome (i.e., determining the order of the nucleic acids, the building blocks of the genetic code) of the honey bee. During his career, he has published (on his own, or together with colleagues) over 300 articles, trained 29 postdoctoral fellows and 23 PhD students. He has won prestigious awards from the American Entomological Association, the International Society for Animal Behaviour and the International Society for Behavioural Genetics.
Robinson led an international consortium with more than 170 researchers from 13 countries involved in the sequencing of the honey bee genome. As part of the honey bee genome study, Robinson led the team that discovered that the honey bee has a fully functioning methylation system. Methylation is a chemical process of great biological significance. It is the adding of a methyl group (CH3, a carbon atom connected to three hydrogen atoms) to any compound. The addition of methyl molecules to the DNA coil at different locations affects how an infinite number of the potential traits inherent in the hereditary load will actually be expressed. Robinson’s discovery has led to hundreds of studies examining the possibility of the use of insect epigenetics for insecticide. Epigenetics is the field that deals with genetic changes in the function of genes that do not involve altering the DNA sequences themselves. One of the possibilities for obtaining differences between two animals with the same DNA is the different locations of methyl groups across the DNA. This can be compared to two computers with the same hardware but with different software, which, therefore, function differently.
Robinson also used the honey bee to achieve a break-through with a genomic application in the study of social behaviour, and in doing so promoted this species, which is vital to agriculture, to an important and prominent position in neuroscience. Robinson eventually came to rephrase the problem of growing multi-annual crops in modern genomic terms. Alongside the basic biology of the honeybee, Gene Robinson is responsible for a useful study on the problem of colony breakdown disorder, i.e. the disappearance of bees from beehives or bee colonies, a phenomenon that threatens the global food supply. Gene Robinson made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of the honeybee, an understanding that has shaped the present and future of the world of bee-keeping. In addition, his impressive discoveries have also influenced other disciplines, including the science of social behaviour and mental disorders. Robinson has a dominant and unique influence on the biology of the honey bee, and his work has not been matched in research in other animals of agricultural importance.