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In this study an important and often neglected aspect of gene expression studies in insects, the validation of appropriate reference genes with stable expression levels between sample groups, is addressed. Although in this paper the reference gene selection for the honeybee, Apis mellifera L. (Hymenoptera: Apidae) head was tested in the context of bacterial challenge with Escherichia coli, this work can serve as a resource to help select and screen insect reference genes for gene expression studies in any tissue and under any experimental manipulation. Since it is recommended to use multiple reference genes for accurate normalization, we analyzed the expression of eleven candidate reference genes in the honeybee head, for their potential use in the analysis of differential gene expression following bacterial challenge. Three software programs, BestKeeper, Normfinder and geNorm, were used to assess candidate reference genes. GeNorm recommended the use of four reference genes. Both geNorm and Normfinder identified the genes GAPDH, RPS18, actin and RPL13a as the most stable ones, only differing in their ranking order. BestKeeper identified RPS18 as being the reference gene with the least overall variation, but also actin and GAPDH were found to be the second and third most stable expressed gene. By a combination of three software programs the genes actin, RPS18 and GAPDH were found suitable reference genes in the honeybee head in the context of bacterial infection.
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