Genome draft used to try to keep bees healthy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Honey bee, Insect

Scientists from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) announced a
year ago they had completed the first draft on the honeybee genome;
they are now using these findings to uncover new ways to keep
honeybees healthy.

The researchers, led by members of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas now want to find different methods of managing the welfare and productivity of this insect.

For them, this research is vitally important, noting that the honeybee's pollination of 90-plus kinds of flowering crops each year results in yield and quality improvements valued at more than $14 billion in the US alone. And that is without counting honey, the byproduct of such pollination.

The honeybee genome is, according to the researchers, about one-tenth the length of that for humans. Jay Evans and Katherine Aronstein, ARS members on the team, are now using this information specifically to identify immune system genes that keep honeybees healthy. Their efforts come at a time when insect pests, parasites and diseases of honeybees cause an estimated $5 million annually in crop-pollination losses, said the ARS​.

Evans and Aronstein are studying a handful of genes and gene products, or proteins, that may block honey bee diseases. One example is abaecin, a peptide that honey bees produce to varying degrees when attacked by pathogens.

The scientists are excited that by mapping the honeybee genome, they have additionally opened up other research avenues. These include, identifying genetic markers to speed up the breeding of bees - a measure, which, they note, could lead to better winter survival - and modeling host-pathogen interactions to better control honeybee disease organisms.

A further line of enquiry could be the use of genome-driven studies to fine-tune honey bee nutrition and pollination. For example, by locating honeybees' olfactory genes, researchers believe they may be able to improve the insect's diet through supplementation or improve its ability to forage for nectar longer.

"As an organism whose social order rivals our own in many ways, the honey bee will serve as a natural system for further agricultural studies, including social behavior, cognition, and immune system function,"​ said Joseph Jen, under secretary for USDA's research, education and economics, shortly after the genome draft's January 2004 completion.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggested towards the end of last year that health promoting compounds found in honey could make the ingredient a more attractive option for food makers currently using bulk sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup.

They said that honey could be a healthier alternative to corn syrup due to its higher level of antioxidants, compounds which are believed to fight cancer, heart disease and other diseases.

Honey, which contains a number of antioxidant components that act as preservatives, also shows promise as a replacement for some synthetic antioxidants widely used as preservatives in salad dressings and other foods, according to Nicki Engeseth, associate professor of food chemistry at the university.

The composition and flavour of honey varies with the plant source of the nectar, processing and storage but a typical composition is 41 per cent fructose, 34 per cent glucose, 18 per cent water, and 2 per cent sucrose with a pH of 3.8 to 4.2.

According to the US researchers dark-coloured honey, such as buckwheat honey, is generally thought to contain higher levels of antioxidants than the light-coloured varieties. Previous studies by the researchers, who presented their findings this week at the American Chemical Society meeting in Illinois, suggest that honey may have the same level of disease-fighting antioxidants as that of some common fruits.

In international terms China is currently by far the largest honey producing nation in the world, with around a 40 percent slice of the market. The next biggest producers are the US, Argentina and Ukraine.

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