It is well-known that colostrum, the first breast milk fed to mammal babies, provides temporary immunity to the under-developed infant’s immune system. After that, to pre-train antibodies to defend against pathogens, the unaware body needs to be shocked awake and alert periodically with vaccinations, which deliver extremely weakened, or even dead, microorganisms into the body for ease of future identification and to ward off possible attacks by live versions of the microorganisms later in life. However, unlike vertebrates, insects cannot produce antibodies, a fact which can be detrimental in the right set of circumstances, which begs the question of how they have managed to survive for so long. Researchers believe a super-protein found in bee hives may be the answer, and with further studies, could also be used as a possible alternative to vaccines.
The answer to bee immunity via a super-protein goes back to the reproductive stages of the queen. Instead of passing on temporary immunity through milk, egg-laying species pass permanent immunity through a gamete protein they produce called vitellogenin. When worker bees are out pollinating and gathering nectar to make food, any pathogens they happen to come across are carried back to the hive, and the queen consumes them in the royal jelly. In her body, the microorganisms are digested, and eventually find their way to her “fat body,” which acts like a liver. With enough exposure in the right stages of egg development, the super-protein will be activated to recognize and bind to molecular patterns that appear harmful, much like how antibodies act at an inflamed site. The protein then travels through the blood to the developing fertilized eggs, and the offspring have a formulated, lifelong resilience to the microorganisms encountered during their state of embryonic development. It is no mystery why the queen gets special treatment – the super-protein she produces is 70 percent devoted to immunity, while only 40 percent of the workers’ protein is composed of vitellogenin.
While Arizona State University and other institutions have come to this conclusion that this super-protein is a factor in bee resilience, it is suggested that insects such as these should be additionally artificially vaccinated. Since 1947, the bee population has drastically dived from 6 million to 2.5 million, a reduction thought to be a result of pesticides and other human activities. If a natural, edible immunity was delivered to the honeybee population as an alternative to the super-protein, the count could be re-balanced for their benefit, and for the benefit of humans. Along with other similar species, bees are responsible for the pollination, and therefore reproduction, of 87 of the top 115 food crops, according to Techtimes.
The honeybee population also suffers from destructive diseases like American Foul Brood, as well as hive-wide problems like Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Information regarding CCD is scarce, but this disorder is characterized by the alarming lack of travelers returning to the hive, while just a few corpses can be found outside the hives. This is not an everyday disease for these insects, because in most circumstances, a strike-out would result in a pile of bodies, much like with pesticide poisoning. In the case of CCD, most of the worker bees abandon the queen, and only a few nurses are left with the children and a good amount of sustenance. Despite all of the food, the hive’s remaining residents will eventually run out of fuel and die. Bees are ancient creatures and instinctively know that death of the hive will be the final result of abandonment, so researchers are currently looking into possible causes for this abnormal behavior, such as underlying diseases, increased stress (such as in-hive transportation), indirect pesticide exposure, changing foraging places, nutrition, or a weakened immuno-capacity.
This latest revelation of the role of a super-protein in genetically-activated immunization in egg-laying species could not only recover the dwindling populations of various beneficial pollinating insects, such as bees, but with enough research it could also hold the key to warding off diseases among poultry and fish in the food industry. Eventually, future observations of and experimentation on the two distinct reproductive processes could potentially offer alternatives for immuno-compromised or unvaccinated individuals.
By Jarick Roaderick
Discovery: Queen Bees Vaccinate All of Their Babies
IFLScience.com: Researchers Discover How Bees Naturally Vaccinate Their Young
Techtimes.com: Bees Vaccinated by Queens, New Study Reveals
EPA.gov: Colony Collapse Disorder
PLOS.org:Transfer of Immunity from Mother to Offspring Is Mediated via Egg-Yolk Protein Vitellogenin
Image Courtesy of nonperturbative’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License