Tiny bacteria devouring viruses could hold the key to saving the U.S. honeybee population from a devastating disease that is destroying hives, according to research from a college freshman that is already yielding results.
American foulbrood, a bacterial infection that attacks bee larvae, has wiped out entire colonies and contributed significantly to worldwide agricultural losses. In order to prevent a larger infestation, affected hives are often burned to the ground to prevent further spread.
But a study into the use of bacteriophages — tiny viruses that infect and consume bacteria known as phages — to fight the bee disease by Bryan Merrill, a student at Brigham Young University (BYU), has raised hopes of a natural remedy to the bee blight. Merrill recently published his findings in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Genomics.
A beekeeper, Merrill is now working to identify the perfect phage for the job. So far, he has identified five phage candidates for honeybee treatment, a release from BYU said.
“This bacteria has been a problem in honeybees for a long time,” Merrill said in the university’s release. “Even a few spores will infect and they’ll start eating the larva from the inside out. It doesn’t hurt the adult bees, but all of the sudden the bees can’t replenish the population and the hive just collapses.”
Losses to the bee industry can be costly.
American foulbrood has been difficult to treat because it can evolve to resist antibiotics and other chemical treatments. But Merrill hopes that his research could lead to a breakthrough in finding a natural way to treat the disease.
The phage works by hunting down specific bacteria and self-replicating until that bacteria is eliminated.
“Phages are the most abundant life form on the planet and each phage has a unique bacteria that it will attack,” Sandra Burnett, BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology, said in the release. “This makes phage an ideal treatment for bacterial disease because it can target specific bacteria while leaving all other cells alone.”
Burnett, who supervised Merrill’s research, said that phage replicates itself so there are more of them to hunt down the bacteria. "Then as soon as the host is gone, the phage just disappears," she said in the release.