First-ever insect vaccine could help save bees

December 9, 2018, 9:10 a.m.
Bees swarm in their hive.
Photo: ahmad yaaser shamsuddin/Shutterstock

Researchers at the University of Helsinki have developed an edible vaccine for bees to protect them from bacterial diseases.

Dubbed PrimeBee, the vaccine is administered to a queen bee in an edible sugar patty. When a queen eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are then bound by vitellogenin, a stable storage protein. The vitellogenin carries these signature molecules into the eggs laid by the queen, helping lay the groundwork for future immune responses.

Dalial Freitak has worked with insects and the immune system throughout her career. She originally worked with moths, and that's when she noticed that if the parental generation is exposed to certain bacteria through food, their offspring show elevated immune responses. The same, she thought, might be applicable to bees.

"So they could actually convey something by eating. I just didn't know what the mechanism was," Freitak explains in a statement. "At the time, as I started my post-doc work in Helsinki, I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honeybees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like: 'OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another.' We started to collaborate, got funding from the Academy of Finland, and that was actually the beginning of PrimeBee."

Freitak and Salmela are focusing first on developing a vaccine against the American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that destroys entire colonies and whose spores can remain viable for 50 years.

The PrimeBee vaccine is in the process of being commercialized, with its safety being tested in labs and plenty of regulatory hurdles to clear before it can hit the market. No word yet on how much an immunized queen will cost.

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