Bee babies enter the world naturally vaccinated, according to a new study that found queen bees inoculate all of their young.
The scientists learned how queen bees manage this feat, and plan to replicate it in future with the hope of boosting bee immunity even more. The findings appear today in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
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"The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now," co-author Gro Amdam of Arizona State University said in a press release. "What we found is that it's as simple as eating. Our amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin. This exemplifies how long-term investments in basic research pay off."
Co-author Dalial Freitak of the University of Helsinki added, "I have been working on bee immune priming since the start of my doctoral studies. Now almost 10 years later, I feel like I've solved an important part of the puzzle. It's a wonderful and very rewarding feeling!"
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The researchers explained that, in a honeybee colony, the queen rarely leaves the nest, so worker bees must bring food to her. Forager bees gather pollen and nectar, but in doing so, gather pathogens in the environment too. The whole mix, bacteria and all, is used back at the hive to create royal jelly, which the queen ingests.
Once consumed, the bacteria are digested in her gut and wind up stored in the queen's "fat body," which is an organ similar to a liver. Pieces of the bacteria are then bound to a protein called vitellogenin, and are carried via blood to the developing eggs. Because of this, bee babies enter the world vaccinated.
The simple brilliance of the process is that the bees are specifically safeguarded against diseases present in their own environment.
These days, however, bees face less predictable challenges from human activities, such as pesticide use and sudden widespread transfer of plants/crops and bee pests, as well as climate change factors and other threats. During the past six decades alone, managed honeybee colonies in the United States have declined from 6 million in 1947 to only 2.5 million today.
Armed with the new knowledge about vitellogenin, the scientists are working on the first ever edible and natural vaccine for beneficial insects like bees.
"We are patenting a way to produce a harmless vaccine, as well as how to cultivate the vaccines and introduce them to bee hives through a cocktail the bees would eat," Freitak said. "They would then be able to stave off disease."
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They first plan to target a destructive bee disease known as American Foul Brood, which can spread quickly and destroy hives.
Saving bees offers significant rewards for humans, since honeybees and other pollinators are vital to food production, pollinating 87 of the top 115 food crops. So they play a critical role in maintaining our economy and food sources.
Since all egg-laying species have vitellogenin in their bodies, the vaccination technique might be applied to fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians, in addition to insects like bees.
Amdam said, "Because this vaccination process is naturally occurring, this process would be cheap and ultimately simple to implement. It has the potential to both improve and secure food production for humans."