The brains and the bees

Student research team discovered the secret to saving honeybees was right under their Nosema

Matt Rea, '13 PhD, - 09 May 2019

A UAlberta student research team engineered a drug to stop a deadly infection in honeybees. Donors helped the students travel to an international competition, where they won first prize for their innovation.

The death of honeybees is a global problem that threatens our food supply and delivers an economic sting. Alberta's honey industry is valued at roughly $60 million and makes up almost half of Canada's honey production. Beekeeping contributes billions of dollars in value to the agricultural industry through crop pollination, as higher bee populations lead to better crop yield.

A student research team at the University of Alberta was inspired by the local impact of this global loss. The group of 10 undergraduate students representing the faculties of science, medicine, engineering and arts developed a genetically engineered probiotic that targets a common but deadly fungal infection in honeybees. APIS, short for antifungal porphyrin-based intervention system, can help honeybees ward off Nosema ceranae, a parasite that infects bees around the world. The fungus poses a big challenge in Alberta, where its damaging effect can be worsened by the cold.

Inspired by her own student experience, donor Winna Francisco wanted to help the U of A student team make a difference.

The student team presented its discovery at the 2018 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition in Boston, where the students took home first prize for Best Food and Nutrition Project against 300 other teams. But they wouldn't have made it to the competition without the generosity of 32 donors, who helped cover their travel costs.

"The donors' support motivated us to turn our solution into a product beekeepers can use," says Ethan Agena, iGEM team member and U of A engineering student.

When Agena and his teammates met with local beekeepers, they learned about the fungal infection Nosema, one of several causes of bee colony death. The students' innovation couldn't have come at a better time, because the previous treatment for the fungus was no longer available. The team wants to bring APIS to market as soon as possible, with the help of Alberta beekeepers who are eager to start field trials.

Collective donations made a big impact and contributed to the team's success. One of the donors, Winna Francisco, heard about the project through a friend and knew she wanted to help the students make a difference. As a university student in the Philippines, Francisco volunteered with a student club that worked with abused children - an experience she never forgot. "I learned things I couldn't learn in books," she says.

A self-described "foodie" and daughter of a science teacher, Francisco also recognized that supporting the iGEM team would help preserve our environment for future generations.

"The iGEM team's cause - to fight a disease that's hurting the bee population - is a simple thing that has a huge impact down the road," she says. "It makes me feel inspired and sincerely happy to see these kids solve real-world problems."