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Honeybee expert joins German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina

By

Margaret Coulombe

The oldest scientific academy of science, the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, has elected Arizona State University scientist Robert E. Page Jr. into its august ranks.

Page, professor and founding director of the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College Liberal Arts and Sciences, was elected to the academy for his pioneering research in behavioral genetics of honeybees. With more than 200 publications, Page’s work has graced the covers of respected journals, such as Naturwissenschaften, Nature, Genome Research, Cell and BioEssays, and created new understanding about Africanized bees, genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination and division of labor in insect societies.

The German Academy of Sciences was founded in 1652. Three quarters of its 1,000 active members (under the age of 75) come from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The remainders come from 30 countries around the globe and include 79 Americans. In its more than 350 years of existence, the academy’s membership has included 167 Nobel laureates, and some of the most formidable minds in physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy and mathematics.

Among the notable members of the Leopoldina were the explorer Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie, who won Nobel Prizes for physics (1903) and chemistry (1911). Albert Einstein was also elected (Nobel Prize, 1921) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of Faust and Sorrows of Werther.

“Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin are my heroes,” says Page. “I am truly honored to belong to an academy that lists them as former members.” Page has also received the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award, also known as the Humboldt Research Prize. It is the highest honor given to a foreign researcher by the German government.

Page has been intrigued by how complex social behavior evolved since he earned his doctorate from the University of California at Davis in 1980. Honey bees have a distinct caste system and division of labor, where most of the individuals that perform behavioral tasks associated with colonial living do not reproduce. Page has used artificial selection to develop special strains of bees, a tool that has helped him dissect behavior and its underlying genetic and physiological architecture. For example, his discovery of a high recombination rate in honey bees, and studies with high and low pollen-hoarding strains of bees allowed the mapping of social behavior to the genome; research that was fundamental to the development and publication of the complete genome of the honey bee in 2006.

Page, professor emeritus and former chair of the entomology department at University of California, Davis, was recruited to ASU in 2004 to catalyze the reorganization of the distinctly separate departments of biology, microbiology and botany into one unified School of Life Sciences. With more than 600 faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff, and research that ranges from studies on biodiesel and biohydrogen to vaccine development and the conservation of whales, the school became ASU’s first academic unit to fully reflect President Michael Crow’s integrated, interdisciplinary vision for the New American University.

Within the School of Life Sciences, Page created a platform for cross disciplinary, cutting edge research. Among his institutional achievements has been the formation of the social insect research group. This collaborative includes Pulitzer Prize winning author and sociobiologist, Bert Hölldobler, also a member of the Leopoldina since 1975. The group’s work with ants, bees, wasps and termites has established ASU has one of the top research institutes in sociobiology and social insect studies. Social insect research at ASU now offers new insights into aging, epigenetics and development of disease, as well charting the basis for the evolution of social behavior, from genes to superorganisms.

“Rob's reputation as an outstanding scientist and a brilliant academic leader is very strong and he has an outstanding record of international cooperation, particularly with Germany. I am absolutely delighted by his election to the German Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina,” notes Hölldobler.

Page’s contribution to the study of social insects also includes the establishment of ASU’s Honey Bee Research Facility. Managed by Osman Kaftanoglu, the facility maintains honey bee research colonies, in addition to doing its own novel scientific studies. Page’s special strains of pollen-hoarding bees also still play a fundamental role in collaborative research being undertaken at the U.C. Davis Harry Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, with James R. Carey, professor and program director of the Biodemographic Determinants of Life Span project.

“Rob Page is one of the most gifted scientists, administrators, and teachers I have had the privilege to know in 30 years in academia,” states Carey. “Those of us who have worked with him congratulate him and are proud to call him our colleague and friend."

In addition to his election to the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, Page is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Page is also a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Wiko) or Institute for Advanced Study, where, for the next academic year, he will lead a working group on social insect evolution.