March 3, 2020/Health & Science

Engineered bacteria protect honey bee health

  • Bacteria naturally found in honey bees were engineered to help bees fight infections that that have been destroying colonies.
  • More studies are needed before the engineered bacteria could be tested in beehives in the wild.

Honey bees are vital to agriculture around the world. About a third of crops, and most flowering plants, require pollinators such as bees to reproduce. Recently, several threats to honey bee health have increased the incidence of colony collapse, where most bees in a hive suddenly disappear.

One major threat is from a type of parasitic mite called Varroa destructor. These mites live on bees and puncture their bodies to feed on fat cells. The parasites alone can harm or kill bees. But when the mites feed, they can also pass a deadly virus called deformed wing virus (DWV) to the bees.

Together, these two pathogens are thought to be major contributors to colony collapse. Hives can be treated with pesticides to kill mites and protect bees, but mites quickly develop resistance to such chemicals. The pesticides can also contaminate honey.

As an alternate strategy, researchers have tried introducing double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) into bee colonies. This type of RNA is produced by viruses, including DWV. When insect immune systems encounter dsRNA, they respond by attacking similar RNA sequences. This immune reaction could potentially kill viruses throughout a bee’s body.

Past attempts to use this strategy, however, have proven expensive and short-lived. New research from a team led by doctoral candidate Sean Leonard and Drs. Jeffrey Barrick and Nancy Moran from the University of Texas explored a way to improve the use of dsRNA to protect bees from their pathogens.

The researchers engineered a type of bacterium found in the normal bee microbiome to produce dsRNA matching that of either DWV or Varroa mites. After re-introducing the bacteria to small groups of bees, the team tested whether the bees were better able to survive infection from the pathogens. The work was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). Results were published on January 31, 2020, in Science.

The researchers successfully reintroduced the engineered bacteria to bees through their food and showed that the dsRNA produced in the gut spread to other parts of the bees’ bodies. They also showed that it could provoke an immune response in the bees.

The team next tested bacteria carrying dsRNA targeting different parts of the DWV genome. Exposure to bacteria with one of these dsRNAs substantially improved the bees’ survival when they were later injected with DWV virus.

In another set of experiments, the team engineered the bacteria to produce dsRNA from the Varroa mite genome and reintroduced the bacteria to bees. When Varroa mites fed on the bees, they took the dsRNA from the bacteria into their own bodies. This dsRNA then triggered the mites’ immune system to attack their own cells. Mites that fed on bees carrying the engineered bacteria died more quickly than mites that fed on bees without the protective bug.

“This is the first time anyone has improved the health of bees by genetically engineering their microbiome,” Leonard says.

More research is needed before the bacteria could be introduced to hives in the wild, including testing how the engineered bacteria might spread and whether the engineered genes could pass to other types of bacteria.

by Sharon Reynolds

Buzzing About the Honey Bee Genome

It’s not just their importance for agriculture that makes honey bees so interesting for scientists. Honey bees have tiny brains, and yet they manage to have complex social structures. Researchers have now completed sequencing the genome of the honey bee to get some insights into these fascinating insects.

The honey bee’s social behavior makes it an important model for understanding how genes regulate behavior through the development of the brain and central nervous system. Dr. George Weinstock, co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine, led the Honey Bee Genome Consortium in its effort to complete the draft genome sequence of the western honey bee, Apis mellifera. The effort was supported by NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other NIH components. The analysis team consisted of more than 170 investigators representing nearly 100 research groups from 13 countries.

The researchers described the approximately 260 million DNA base pair genome of the honey bee in the Oct. 26 issue of Nature. Over 40 other companion manuscripts with further detailed analyses are appearing in Insect Molecular Biology, Genome Research, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and other journals.

The honey bee is the third insect to have its genome sequenced and analyzed. The genome of the malaria-carrying mosquito (Anopheles gambiae) was completed in 2002 and that of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), which is commonly used in genetics research, was completed in 2000. The honey bee genome shows greater similarities to vertebrates like humans than these other insects for genes involved in circadian rhythm as well as for the biological processes involved in turning genes on or off.

“Comparing the genome of the honey bee with other species separated over evolutionary time from humans has provided us with powerful insights into the complex biological processes that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years,” said NHGRI Director Dr. Francis S. Collins.

Among other interesting findings, researchers discovered nine genes in the “royal jelly protein family” that appear in the honey bee genome but not the mosquito genome. Royal jelly proteins are produced by glands in the head of adult worker bees and are an important nutritional component in queen and brood care. The proteins are vital in the early development of a honey bee and help determine whether it becomes a queen or an altruistic worker.

Collins said “The genome of the honey bee has been added to a growing list of organisms whose sequence can be compared side by side to better understand the structure and functions of our own genes. And that will help speed our understanding of how genes contribute to health and what goes wrong in illness.”



We save bees free of charge, remove and resettle them into safe habitats. About 38% of bee colonies in the USA died during the last 2 years. Honey bees — wild and domestic — perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but fruits, nuts, and vegetables are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops — which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees.

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