Genetically modified bacteria? For what? Recently, bees were chosen as the most important animal on the planet. It was decided by the Royal Geography Society of London. It is the only living being that does not spread any disease by fungi, viruses or bacteria. It does not carry pathogens. But its population is increasingly affected. An increasing number of honey bee colonies in the United States have seen the decline of their adult bees. Beekeepers lost almost 40% of their honey bee colonies last winter. A solution was thought of: genetically modified bacteria … for bees.
Caring for bees
They were created by scientists from the University of Texas at Austin. Strains of genetically modified bacteria to protect honey bees from pests that cause collapse of their colonies.
The modified bacteria live in the digestive system of honey bees. They act as biological factories, pumping drugs that protect bees. Especially against ‘Varroa’ mites and the warped wing virus.
Researchers believe that their method could one day be extended for agricultural use. Manipulated bacteria are easy to grow. The inoculation of bees is simple. And manipulated bacteria are unlikely to spread beyond bees.
Increasing the odds
“It has direct implications for the health of bees,” says Nancy Moran, Professor of Integrative Biology. She is the principal investigator of the study. “This is the first time someone has improved the health of bees by genetic engineering of their microbiome.” That adds it’s a statement Sean Leonard, also first author of the study.
The ‘Varroa’ mites and the deformed wing virus often come together. As the mites feed on the bees, they can spread the virus. While weakening them and making them more vulnerable to pathogens in the environment.
The team designed a strain of bacteria to attack the virus and another for mites. Bees treated with the strain of bacteria that attack the virus were 36.5% more likely to survive until day 10.
Without honey bees, dozens of crops, from almonds to berries and broccoli, would disappear.
Bees have an ecosystem of bacteria in their intestines called microbiome. Also an antiviral defense mechanism called RNA interference (RNAi) that helps the body fight certain viruses, called RNA viruses. When an RNA virus is introduced, it produces molecules called double stranded RNA that detects a healthy cell. Triggers an immune response of RNAi.
“Usually, you only get signs of these molecules when an RNA virus is replicating,” says Moran. It is a sign that this could be something evil and you should attack it.
How is the strain inoculated?
Sprayed with a solution of sugar water containing the bacteria, the bees groomed and ingested the solution. This led the bee’s immune systems to prepare to protect them against the deformed wing virus, which is an RNA virus. And it caused the mite’s own immune systems to fight and eventually kill them.
This type of genetically modified bacteria is highly specialized to live in the bee’s intestine. It cannot survive for long outside of it and protects against a virus that attacks only bees. Even so, more research will be needed to determine the effectiveness and safety of treatment in agricultural settings.