One of the most pressing potential ecological disasters faced in the near-future is the decline in the population of various species of bees. New research has indicated that this decline may be a result of a multitude of hitherto undiscovered viruses affecting the bee. Despite the fact that bees are considered vitally important to our ecosystems due to their role as pollinators, up until now scientists have known relatively little about the viruses that affect them.
Though scientists have long considered there to be a number of reasons for the fall in bee populations, viruses have long been believed to be a primary causal factor. New research published in the June 11th issue of Scientific Reports not only lends credence to this view but also reveals the problem may be more complex than originally suspected. It also offers a ray of hope in stopping the spread of viral pathogens through bee populations.
To investigate these viruses experimenters supported by The National Geographic Society and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service took samples of DNA and RNA from 12 bee species across 9 different countries. They then developed an entirely new sequencing technique that enabled the team to identify hitherto undiscovered viruses within the sample. Usually, sampling methods of this nature would only allow researchers to investigate and uncover viruses within samples that were already known.
“Typically, researchers would have to develop labour-intensive molecular assays to test for the presence of specific viruses,” said Zachary Fuller, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University and a recent Penn State graduate. “With our method, they can sequence all the viruses present in a sample without having any prior knowledge about what might be there.”
The development comes about as the cost of High-throughput sequencing, a method which allows the processing of massive amounts of DNA, is reducing and its availability is increasing. The technique has already led to several major breakthroughs in genetics and medicine and has now, with this research, doubled the number of bee viruses that researchers are aware of. The development will also likely lead to its adoption by other research teams across the globe and thus the discovery of even more unknown bee viruses.
The research uncovered several surprises amongst the viruses. This includes a virus remarkably similar to one that affects plants. The researchers suspect that bees may have contracted this virus from pollen. Whilst it may not have any effects on the bee it is transmitted to further plants via the insect. As such, the virus may come to represent a major hazard to agriculture if it were to become more widespread.
Another surprise came in the form of the discovery that some of the newly discovered viruses existed in multiple bee species. This suggests that viruses are free to circulate from population to population. This finding suggests that bee populations could be protected by monitoring the movement of species from country to country.
The study represents an exciting new platform for the study of viruses in pollinating insects and could lead to a new era of bee conservation.