Gene Robinson

Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology
Room 1608
1206 West Gregory Drive
Urbana, IL 61801
Office: (217) 265-0309

Lab Page
Curriculum Vita

Gene Robinson

Director, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Swanlund Chair
Center for Advanced Study Professor in Entomology and Neuroscience
B.S., M S., Ph.D., Cornell University

Neural, endocrine, and genomic analyses of social behavior

My research group uses the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, to understand the evolution and mechanisms of social behavior. Among the species of animals most attuned to their social environment are the social insects, which include the honey bee. They live in societies that rival our own in complexity and internal cohesion.

Social insects are "eusocial,” which is the most extreme form of animal social life. Bees and other eusocial insects live in colonies with overlapping generations, cooperative brood care, and a reproductive division of labor. The queen reproduces, while the workers perform tasks related to colony growth and development and engage in little, if any, reproduction themselves.

Advanced eusocial species such as honey bees have the largest colonies, numbering tens or even hundreds of thousands of workers. They also live in the most complex societies, highlighted by an intricate division of labor among workers. It is this division of labor that has made possible the evolution of traits normally associated with human society: agriculture, warfare and symbolic language.

Social insects are "extremists" in their constant expression of social behavior. They coordinate virtually all of their activities with other individuals to ensure colony survival. Yet despite their special attributes, the challenges social insects face are not exceptional. All animals must, to some degree, obtain and process information about their changing ecological and social milieu and act accordingly. Neural and behavioral plasticity is even more contingent upon social context for species with active social lives. In social evolution, the sophistication of 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.

Our 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. We focus on the most fundamental social behavior system in the honey bee colony, the division of labor among colony members. We also investigate other behaviors, including dance language, colony defense and reproductive behavior in the usually sterile workers.

Research Areas

Major Grants


NIH R21 MH107962-01 (Robinson) National Institutes of Health Dynamic and Stable Regulation of Aggression through DNA Methylation Aims: Determine role of actively regulated de-methylation in neural and behavioral plasticity

NSF IOS 12-57680 (Robinson) National Science Foundation Collaborative Research: Brain Metabolic Plasticity and Aggression Aims: Use the tools and approaches of systems biology to study the dynamics of brain metabolism and its link to aggression Co-PI: Price ND

291812 (Robinson & L. Stubbs) Simons Foundation Molecular Roots of the Social Brain Aims: We will determine whether social behavior arises, in part, from a “dynamic genome” that is transcriptionally responsive to the social environment; and, if so, whether key brain molecular modules of social responsiveness are deeply conserved in evolution. This will be accomplished by creating a novel interdisciplinary approach that integrates evolutionary biology, social behavior, neuroscience, genomics, and systems biology.

NSF DGE 10-69157 (A. Suarez) National Science Foundation IGERT: Vertically Integrated Training with Genomics Aims: Provide integrative training in genomics, ecology, evolution, and behavior. Role: Co-I

NSF BCS 12-46920 (H. Dankowicz) National Science Foundation INSPIRE Asynchronous Communication Self Organization and Differentiation in Human and Insect Networks Role: Co-I


NIH 1 DP1 GM105380 A (Robinson) Director's Pioneer Award Johnny Bee Good: Bees as Models to Study the Hijacking of the Reward System Aims: Use ’omics and systems biology to study transcriptional regulatory networks that regulate reward circuits and how they might have changed during social evolution. Analysis restricted to bee species, solitary and social.

BARD No IS-4418-11 R (G. Bloch) Binational Agricultural Research & Development Fund Functional Genomics of Reproduction and Division of Labor in a Key Non Apis Pollinator Role: Co-I

P30 DA018310 (J. Sweedler) NIH-NIDA Aims: Develop UIUC neuroproteomics center on cell-cell signaling. Role: Co-I

NSF DBI 09-60583 (S. Zhong) Aims: Modeling the evolution of gene regulatory modules for complex traits. Role: Co-PI

1R01 DK082605 (Robinson) NIDDK Regulation of Stable Fat Loss in a Model System Aims: Use systems biology to identify genes that underlie the ability of the honey bee to undergo a natural stable loss of fat. Co-PIs: Zhong S & Mizzen C

NSF 0838353 (Robinson) Comparative Genomics, Molecular Evolution, and the Evolution of Bee Society Aims: Use next-generation sequencing and techniques of molecular evolution to identify genes and pathways involved in the evolution of insect society. Co-PI: Hudson M

Representative Publications

The energetic basis of behavior: bridging behavioral ecology and neuroscience CC Rittschof, CM Grozinger, GE Robinson Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 6, 19-27 2015

Dissecting diversity in the social brain GE Robinson Science 350 (6266), 1310-1312 2015

Physiology of reproductive worker honey bees (Apis mellifera): insights for the development of the worker caste M Peso, N Even, E Søvik, NL Naeger, GE Robinson, AB Barron Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 1-12 2015

Diet and endocrine effects on behavioral maturation-related gene expression in the pars intercerebralis of the honey bee brain MM Wheeler, SA Ament, SL Rodriguez-Zas, B Southey, GE Robinson Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (24), 4005-4014 2015

Laboratory Assay of Brood Care for Quantitative Analyses of Individual Differences in Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Affiliative Behavior HY Shpigler, GE Robinson PloS one 10 (11), e0143183 2015

Brain regions and molecular pathways responding to food reward type and value in honey bees MS McNeill, KM Kapheim, A Brockmann, TAW McGill, GE Robinson Genes, Brain and Behavior 2015

Developmental transcriptome for a facultatively eusocial bee, Megalopta genalis BM Jones, WT Wcislo, GE Robinson G3: Genes| Genomes| Genetics 5 (10), 2127-2135 2015

Big data: astronomical or genomical? ZD Stephens, SY Lee, F Faghri, RH Campbell, C Zhai, MJ Efron, R Iyer, ... PLoS Biol 13 (7), e1002195 2015

Insights into the transcriptional architecture of behavioral plasticity in the honey bee Apis mellifera AM Khamis, AR Hamilton, YA Medvedeva, T Alam, I Alam, M Essack, ... Scientific reports 5 2015

Voxel?based analysis of the immediate early gene, c?jun, in the honey bee brain after a sucrose stimulus MS McNeill, GE Robinson Insect molecular biology 24 (3), 377-390 2015

Two bumblebee genomes illuminate the route to advanced social living B Sadd, S Bambeau, G Bloch, A Bourke, D Collins, P Dearden, K Flores, ... 2015

Genomic signatures of evolutionary transitions from solitary to group living KM Kapheim, H Pan, C Li, SL Salzberg, D Puiu, T Magoc, HM Robertson, ... Science, aaa4788 2015

The power and promise of applying genomics to honey bee health CM Grozinger, GE Robinson Current Opinion in Insect Science 2015

The genomes of two key bumblebee species with primitive eusocial organization BM Sadd, SM Barribeau, G Bloch, DC de Graaf, P Dearden, CG Elsik, ... Genome biology 16 (1), 76 2015

Caste-Specific Differences in Hindgut Microbial Communities of Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) KM Kapheim, VD Rao, CJ Yeoman, BA Wilson, BA White, N Goldenfeld, ... 2015

Social context during pre-adult stages influences aggression in adult honey bees CC Rittschof, CM Grozinger, GE Robinson INTEGRATIVE AND COMPARATIVE BIOLOGY 55, E153-E153 2015

2015 Aggression is associated with aerobic glycolysis in the honey bee brain1 S Chandrasekaran, CC Rittschof, D Djukovic, H Gu, D Raftery, ND Price, ... Genes, Brain and Behavior 14 (2), 158-166 2015

Early-life experience affects honey bee aggression and resilience to immune challenge CC Rittschof, CB Coombs, M Frazier, CM Grozinger, GE Robinson Scientific reports 5

Comparative brain transcriptomic analyses of scouting across distinct behavioural and ecological contexts in honeybees ZS Liang, HR Mattila, SL Rodriguez-Zas, BR Southey, TD Seeley, ... Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 281 (1797 ... 2014

Neuromolecular responses to social challenge: Common mechanisms across mouse, stickleback fish, and honey bee CC Rittschof, SA Bukhari, LG Sloofman, JM Troy, D Caetano-Anollés, ... Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (50), 17929-17934 2014

Comparing Reversal-Learning Abilities, Sucrose Responsiveness, and Foraging Experience Between Scout and Non-Scout Honey bee (Apis mellifera) Foragers MK Carr-Markell, GE Robinson Journal of Insect Behavior 27 (6), 736-752 2014

Automated monitoring reveals extreme interindividual variation and plasticity in honeybee foraging activity levels P Tenczar, CC Lutz, VD Rao, N Goldenfeld, GE Robinson Animal Behaviour 95, 41-48 2014

Socially responsive effects of brain oxidative metabolism on aggression H Li-Byarlay, CC Rittschof, JH Massey, BR Pittendrigh, GE Robinson Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (34), 12533-12537 2014

Diet-dependent gene expression in honey bees: honey vs. sucrose or high fructose corn syrup MM Wheeler, GE Robinson Scientific reports 4 2014

Genomics: moving behavioural ecology beyond the phenotypic gambit CC Rittschof, GE Robinson Animal behaviour 92, 263-270 2014

Molecular heterochrony and the evolution of sociality in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) SH Woodard, GM Bloch, MR Band, GE Robinson Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 281 (1780 ... 2014

Finding the missing honey bee genes: lessons learned from a genome upgrade CG Elsik, KC Worley, AK Bennett, M Beye, F Camara, CP Childers, ... BMC genomics 15 (1), 86 2014

Combatting the Pollinator Crisis with Genomic Biology CC Lutz, CM Grozinger, GE Robinson Resource Magazine 21 (6), 14-14 2014

Molecular heterochrony and the evolution of sociality in SH Woodard, GM Bloch, MR Band, GE Robinson 2014

Individual differences in honey bee trophallaxis network connectivity T Gernat, V Rao, W Deng, N Goldenfeld, M Middendorf, H Dankowicz, ... IUSSI 2014

Juvenile hormone signaling pathways and the social physiology of the bumblebee Bombus terrestris G Bloch, H Shpigler, Y Li, A Siegel, Z Huang, G Robinson, M Band IUSSI 2014

The effect of cocaine on the social behavior of bees N Naeger, T Gernat, M McNeill, G Robinson IUSSI 2014

Transcriptomic differences underlying instinctive and learned behavior in honey bees N Naeger, G Robinson IUSSI 2014

Reference transcriptome for a facultatively eusocial bee, Megalopta genalis BM Jones, WT Wcislo, GE Robinson IUSSI 2014

The organisation of a queenless honey bee colony M Peso, N Even, N Naeger, G Robinson, AB Barron IUSSI 2014

Genomic signatures of social evolution in bees K Kapheim, C Li, H Pan, G Zhang, G Robinson IUSSI

Complete Publications List (PubMed)