A new discovery by University of Western Ontario scientist Graham Thompson claims to be conclusive evidence that the 'selfish gene', introduced conceptually in 1976 by British biologist Richard Dawkins, isn't just accepted as a natural extension to the works of Charles Darwin, but is now confirmed.
In studying genomes, the word 'selfish' does not refer to the human-describing adjective of self-centered behavior but rather to the blind tendency of genes wanting to continue their existence into the next generation. Ironically, this 'selfish' tendency can appear anything but selfish when the gene does move ahead for selfless and even self-sacrificing reasons.
For instance, in the honey bee colony, a complex social breeding system described as a 'super-organism,' the female worker bees are sterile. The adult queen bee, selected and developed by the worker bees, is left to mate with the male drones.
Because the 'selfish' gene controlling worker sterility has never been isolated by scientists, the understanding of how reproductive altruism can evolve has been entirely theoretical – until now.
Working with Peter Oxley of the University of Sydney in Australia, Thompson has, for the first time-ever, isolated a region on the honey bee genome that houses this 'selfish' gene in female workers bees.
This means that the 'selfish' gene does exist, not just in theory but in reality. "We don't know exactly which gene it is, but we're getting close."
"This basically provides a validation for a huge body of socio-biology," says Thompson, who adds the completion of Honey Bee Genome Project in 2006 was crucial to this discovery.
The research will be published in the July issue of Genetics.