Human beings have synthesized vaccines that protect us against dangerous diseases for centuries. However, recent studies have shown that we are not the only species capable of doing this. Scientists have recently discovered that adult bees vaccinate their babies using natural chemicals produced within their bodies, protecting their young against a range of diseases found in their environments. By discovering this natural chemical that promotes immunity, advancements in how we produce our food may be in the near future.
A Miracle Protein
A team of scientists from Arizona State University, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences , and the University of Helsinki banded together to study just how bees are able to protect themselves and their young against diseases. Specifically, the scientists researched a protein found in the blood of bees, called vitellogenin. They found the protein to be the key component in understanding just how bees vaccinate their babies, as they found the chemical to pass from generation to generation. Gro Amdam, a professor and senior author of the team’s findings in the PLOS Pathogens journal, says they owe their discovery to “15 years of basic research on vitellogenin” prior to the team’s study.
Immunity: Just a Light Snack
“The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now,” explains Amdam. “What we found is that it’s as simple as eating.” Worker bees bring pollen and nectar all day to the reclusive queen, who must stay safe in her hive, in charge of laying and protecting the next generation of bees. The collected pollen and nectar typically contain pathogens and bacteria from the nearby environment. Worker bees then turn their findings into a “royal jelly,”—a food fit only for the queen. When the queen bee eats the royal jelly, the bacteria and pathogens are digested in her guts before being stored in an organ called a “fat body,” where they attach themselves to the discovered protein, vitellogenin. From here, the bacteria and pathogens that have latched themselves onto the queen’s vitellogenin are then transferred through her bloodstream to her eggs, still in development. Through this system, adult bees vaccinate their babies simply by eating, and letting natural processes do the rest.
This is great news for conservationists and economists around the world who worry about the steadily-decreasing numbers of bee populations, as many studies including one done by Yale University show that a significant drop in bee numbers could prove catastrophic to world’s ecosystems and agriculture. Over the past 50 years, numbers in honey bee colonies alone have dropped from 6 million to 2.5 million worldwide. with these recent breakthroughs in discovering how bees vaccinate their babies by natural means, scientists are now hoping to use this new information to formulate edible vaccines which bees could be fed, helping our pollinating friends thrive. The team of researchers have already issued a patent for the vaccine, and have plans to start developing it soon.