Microscopic bugs could save bees

A student at Brigham Young University (BYU) has found a natural way to eliminate a deadly disease that leads to hive collapse: Tiny killer bugs known as phages.

For decades, honeybees have been battling American Foulbrood, a deadly disease that kills off honeybee larvae and leads to hive collapse. The disease is so infectious it often requires infected hives to be burned to the ground.

Beekeepers generally treat infected hives with antibiotics, but this is usually only a temporary solution because the disease can evolve to resist antibiotics and other chemical treatments. If the bacteria returns, beekeepers oftentimes have to burn the hive, which disrupts the honey industry and reduces the number of bees for pollinating plants.

This is where student Bryan Merrill and his fascination for phage come in. Merril took a course on phage during his freshman year at BYU. Phages are the most abundant life form on the planet and each phage has a unique bacteria that it will attack while leaving all other cells alone, explains Sandra Burnett, BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology.

But finding the right phage for the job takes perseverance, which Merrill has. Working together with Burnett, he and other students are identifying the right phage so that they can replicate it in the lab and then apply it to the hive with a sugar-water solution. After considerable gene sequencing and analysing, Merrill has identified five phage candidates for honeybee treatment

“Phage is a great alternative to antibiotics, and it’s a natural alternative because phages exist in nature on their own,” says Burnett. “And just the nature of a phage itself is that it’s self-replicating at the expense of the bacteria. It multiplies itself so there are more of them to hunt down the bacteria. Then as soon as the host is gone, the phage just disappears.”


Photo credit: Peter Shanks, flickr/Creative Commons

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