Human mothers pass their antibodies on to their babies to protect them against certain diseases. But insects do not have antibodies, so what do insect mothers do?
An international researcher team from the US and Scandinavia solved the enigma. It’s a protein in the bee blood. And this is how it’s done: When the queen bee eats her “royal jelly” she also takes up bacteria that came from the pollen and nectar the forager bees pick up in their environment. Passing through her body, the pathogens are digested and stored in an organ similar to a liver. Pieces of the bacteria are then bound to a blood protein called vitellogenin and carried to the developing eggs via the queen’s blood. As a result, the bees are vaccinated before they are born. “It’s as simple as eating” says Professor Gro Amdam from the Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and co-author of the study paper. “Our amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin.”
Developing new vaccines for bees
Now that the ingeniously simple mechanism for natural bee immunity has been found, researchers hope to be able to develop edible and natural vaccines to protect bees against some of today’s devastating diseases. “We are patenting a way to a harmless vaccine as well as how to cultivate the vaccines and introduce them to bee hives through a cocktail the bees would eat,” says co-author Dalial Freitak from the University of Helsinki.
Impact on food production
All egg-laying species have vitellogenin in their bodies. Hence, the discovery could also help to save endangered species and to enhance fish and poultry production. “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, adds Gro Amdam.
The study was a joint effort from Arizona State university, University of Helsinki, the University of Jyväskylä, and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Titled “Transfer of Immunity from Mother to Offspring Is Mediated via Egg-Yolk Protein Vitellogenin”, the study was recently published in the scientific online journal PloS ONE. The authors are Heli Salmela, Gro V. Amdam, and Dalial Freitak
The story was picked up widely in the online press, among them by the Washington Post; the Arizona State University News, science & tech section; and the Daily Mail.