2018—Gene Robinson

Photo of Gene Robinson
Swanlund Chair; Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Gene Robinson is Swanlund Chair, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, and director of the Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He uses genomics and systems biology to study the mechanisms and evolution of social life. His principal model system is the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, along with other species of bees. Although Professor Robinson uses the honey bee model in his research, both his research questions and the context of his work are broadly relevant to scientists, social scientists, and psychologists. The 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.

 Robinson discovered the first known gene involved in regulating the bee colony’s well-known division of labor. His research focuses on division of labor, aggression, and the famous honey bee dance language, a system of symbolic communication through which worker bees communicate information about the locations of food sources to their sisters. More recently, he was part of a collaborative team that identified a likely cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition that decimated over 30% of the honey population in the U.S. in the mid-2000s. The honey bee genome project found large quantities of fragmented ribosomal RNA (rRNA) in the bees affected by CCD.

Robinson’s current research projects include 1) nutritional regulation of brain gene expression and division of labor; 2) gene regulatory network analysis in solitary and social species to determine how brain reward systems change during social evolution, 3) brain metabolic plasticity and aggression; 4) automated monitoring of bee behavior with RFID tags and barcodes; and 5) learning and memory in relation to division of labor.

Professor Robinson is the author or co-author of over 250 publications, including more than two dozen published in Science or Nature, and is the recipient or co-recipient of over $42 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and private foundations. His research has been published in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Trends in Genetics, and Nature Reviews Genetics. In addition, he has pioneered the application of genomics to the study of social behavior, led the effort to gain approval from the National Institutes of Health for sequencing the honey bee genome, and directed the Honey Bee Genome Sequencing Consortium. His service leadership includes appointments on the National Institute of Mental Health Advisory Council and on scientific advisory boards for companies with significant interest in genomics. Among the honors and recognition Robinson has received are membership of the National Academy of Science, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Burroughs Wellcome Innovation Award in Functional Genomics, Founders Memorial Award from the Entomological Society of America, and the rare NIH Pioneer Award.