What Is the Main Driver of Ageing in Long-Lived Winter Honeybees: Antioxidant Enzymes, Innate Immunity, or Vitellogenin?

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To date five different theories compete in explaining the biological mechanisms of senescence or ageing in invertebrates. Physiological, genetical, and environmental mechanisms form the image of ageing in individuals and groups. Social insects, especially the honeybee Apis mellifera, present exceptional model systems to study developmentally related ageing. The extremely high phenotypic plasticity for life expectancy resulting from the female caste system provides a most useful system to study open questions with respect to ageing. Here, we used long-lived winter worker honeybees and measured transcriptional changes of 14 antioxidative enzyme, immunity, and ageing-related (insulin/insulin-like growth factor signaling pathway) genes at two time points during hibernation. Additionally, worker bees were challenged with a bacterial infection to test ageing- and infection-associated immunity changes. Gene expression levels for each group of target genes revealed that ageing had a much higher impact than the bacterial challenge, notably for immunity-related genes. Antimicrobial peptide and antioxidative enzyme genes were significantly upregulated in aged worker honeybees independent of bacterial infections. The known ageing markers vitellogenin and IlP-1 were opposed regulated with decreasing vitellogenin levels during ageing. The increased antioxidative enzyme and antimicrobial peptide gene expression may contribute to a retardation of senescence in long-lived hibernating worker honeybees.

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