China has many habitats supporting a wide diversity of bumblebees, some species of which are limited in distribution to the Tibet Plateau. The high-altitude Tibet Plateau, which has low air density as well as extremely low temperatures, strains the energy requirements for flight in most insects. However, high-altitude bumblebees have adapted to the harsh conditions of this type of habitat.
Bumblebees are a particular group of insect pollinators that exclusively utilize carbohydrates from flowers for energy to sustain flight. Here, gene expression was compared between low-altitude species and Bombus longipennis, and the genes upregulated in B. longipennis were involved in aerobic metabolism, such as the oxidative phosphorylation and citric acid cycle (TCA cycle) pathways.
Furthermore, a conjoint analysis of the transcriptomes of six bumblebee species from the high-altitude Tibet Plateau and two bumblebee species from the low-altitude North China Plain showed that 19 genes were commonly upregulated in high-altitude species. Among these 19 commonly upregulated genes, Pfk1 was enriched in multiple glycometabolic pathways, which are the main energy pathways in bees; this upregulation enhanced the aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis processes to produce more ATP molecules to supply energy for high-altitude bumblebee flight under severe cold conditions.
In addition, glycolysis was enhanced by two other genes, Rac1 and AAC2. Relative quantitative real-time PCR was used to verify that the three genes Pfk1, Rac1, and AAC2 were upregulated in the six main bumblebee species inhabiting the Tibet Plateau.
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Liu, Y., Jin, H., Naeem, M. et al. Comparative transcriptome analysis reveals regulatory genes involved in cold tolerance and hypoxic adaptation of high-altitude Tibetan bumblebees. Apidologie 51, 1166–1181 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-020-00795-w