Mapping Genomes: Bee hunting with Western Wyoming’s Entomologist, Dr. Tanner

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Wyo4News Photo | Tyler Johnson

Tyler Johnson, [email protected]

ROCK SPRINGS, WYOMING (June 22, 2021) – What’s the buzz going on around the Killpecker Sand Dunes just north of Rock Springs?

Well, that’s Dr. Dave Tanner and he is doing research on the difference between certain insects that create their habitat on non-off-roading areas and off-roading areas of the desert, specifically bees.

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Dr. Tanner is an entomologist at Western Wyoming Community College. He and his student Madi Talley have been collecting bees over the last several months to map the insect’s genome, which is all of the specie’s genetic material. This will allow them to follow the gene flow of the bee species being mapped.

The primary insect Dr. Tanner is on the hunt for is of the genus anthidium, which is a solitary bee that creates burrows in the sand. Before beginning the sweep of anthidiums and other insects, Dr. Tanner said the biggest difference between the habitats at the non-off-roading area and the off-roading area is the vegetation.

“In the non-off-road area, the sage is really low and it doesn’t get very tall. In the off-road sage, some of the sage gets really, really tall and it doesn’t have diverse of plant community. I don’t think that has to do with the vehicle usage itself. I think it has more to do with other management strategies, like they allow grazing through here, which really simulates what naturally happens here with pronghorn, elk and deer grazing here,” Dr. Tanner said.

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“I feel like we’ve noticed a little bit of a difference and that has to do more with presence or absence of grazing affecting vegetation type, rather than the off-road vehicles we see.”

Directly under the sun on June 17, Dr. Tanner and Talley collected seven different species in the first 40 minutes of their search, which began in the non-off-roading area of the Killpecker Sand Dunes.

Together, they found a nomada, a halictus, an anthophora and a few more.

The nomada is in the same group of bees as honey bees. It’s a solitary bee, meaning it does not form colonies.  The halictus is often called a sweat bee because it drinks the sweat off the body. The anthophora, the biggest bee caught during the day, is also a solitary bee that digs individual holes in the soil.

After collecting those insects, they made their way to the off-roading area. It was there that they had better luck finding their coveted bee: the anthidium.

Pictured is an anthidium, a solitary bee that creates burrows in the sand.

In order to sequence the genome of the anthidium bees caught Killpecker Sand Dunes, Dr. Tanner will first deep freeze the insects.

“What we’re going to do with those bees is we’re going to throw them in a minus-80 freezer. It freezes things to -80° Celsius. That’s important because it not only maintains the integrity of the DNA, but also RNAs, which allows us to map the genome,” Dr. Tanner said. “The genome mapping is important for future work, looking for gene flow and things like that.”

According to Talley, there are four chemical bases that pair up to make a DNA sequence.

“The order of the base pairs is what determines information about the organism like genes, regulatory instructions or mutations that can cause disease,” she said.

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“Genome sequencing allows us to determine what order the base pairs are in so that we have access to all that information. Think of it as the blueprint to an organism.”

The funding behind the research is part of a grant program called Institutional Development Award Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence from the National Institute of Health (NIH). Dr. Bud Chew, professor of biology at Western Wyoming Community College, is the principle investigator of the two-year grant.

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Dr. Chew’s research primarily focuses on heart failure, according to Dr. Tanner. “He uses mice as models for heart failure. It’s really, really cool research. He has students doing open-heart surgeries on rats and mice,” he said.

The other professor who is doing research as part of the grant is Dr. Josh Holmes, who is an instructor of microbiology at Western Wyoming. His research focuses on subcellular things, such as protein and protein folding.

The grant is at the end of its first year.

Wyo4News Photo | Tyler Johnson

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