By studying honey bees, entomologists have discovered that a blood protein acts as natural immunisation of bees.
A research team at the University of Helsinki used fluorescence microscopy and discovered the bee blood protein vitellogenin acts as a natural immunisation against specific diseases found in their environments.
“How mothers prime their children against infections has been a mystery for decades. Now we demonstrate for the first time a possibly ancient mechanism behind natural “vaccination” of the babies,” said Dr Dalial Freitak at the University of Helsinki.
In the study, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the team used the honey bee species Apis mellifera and found that the immunisation process occurs after the queen bee eats food that contains bacteria from the outside environment. They observed how the pathogens were stored in the queen’s ‘fat body’ — an organ similar to a liver – and how pieces of them bound to the protein vitellogenin and transferred via blood to the developing eggs.
“The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now. What we found is that it's as simple as eating. Our amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin,” said research associate Dr Gro Amdam.
The team found that this natural vaccination prepared the immune systems of larvae to fight diseases. They hope the understanding of how insects fight pathogens will be useful for protection of ecologically and economically important insects, such as the honey bee.
Dr Freitak said: “We are patenting a way to produce a harmless vaccine, as well as how to cultivate the vaccines and introduce them to bee hives through a cocktail the bees would eat. They would then be able to stave off disease.”
The scientists believe this natural way of immunisation could be implemented in the food industry to fight pathogens in developing countries.
“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,” added Dr Amdam.