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Engineered Microbe In Bees' Guts Fends Off Deadly Varroa Mite

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Colony collapse disorder (CCD) occurs when the majority of a hive abandons ship, leaving behind the queen, honey and pollen stores, and young, immature bees behind. Without the workforce of a full hive, the colony fails. According to the US Department of Agriculture, there does not appear to be a single cause of CCD, rather, it is likely a combination of disease, parasites, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, and other stressors on the hive.

One possible contributor to unhealthy hives are Varroa destructor mites, an invasive species that arrived in North America in the early 1980s. Not only do these parasites feed on the bees’ fat stores, but they also transmit a virus that leads to the deformation of their wings. As a bee’s health declines, it becomes more susceptible to contracting other illnesses. If a hive becomes infested with these mites, it might be enough of a threat for the healthy bees to bug out, leaving their hivemates behind. 

To fight back against Varroa, researchers looked to Snodgrassella alvi, a symbiotic bacterium found within the gut of honey bees. Genetic modification of the microbes enabled them to destroy the mites from the inside out through RNA interference (RNAi). The engineered bacteria produced double-stranded RNA that induced the mites to launch an RNAi defense to destroy those sequences. Because the bacterial sequences matched those from the varroa genome critical to the mites’ survival, the silencing mechanism wiped out the mite transcripts as well, killing the parasites

 

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