Student-created probiotic for honeybees fights deadly fungus

    Student team takes first place prize in international competition with project that helps honeybee health—and an important Albertan industry.

    By Andrew Lyle on December 20, 2018

    You may have heard that honeybee numbers are declining, with critical implications for the food chain and the beekeeping industry. But you may not know why. A team of students at the University of Alberta set out to understand the problem and do something about it—and took home a first place prize in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition against more than 300 university teams.

    “Bees have been a really hot topic lately, but although a lot of people know that bees are in trouble, not a lot of people understand why,” said Julia Heaton, team member and science student. “We learned about the problem of Nosema by meeting beekeepers in Alberta, and the local relevance of the problem made it extremely important for us to tackle.”

    iGEM is a synthetic biology competition that challenges university teams from all around the world. Under the supervision of mentors, iGEM teams are tasked with using genetic components to create a biological solution to a real-world problem of their choosing.

    For the UAlberta team, composed of students from the Faculties of Science, Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry, and Arts, that meant deciding to take on a local issue: honeybee health.

    A fungus among us

    Nosema is a parasitic fungus that infects the digestive systems of honeybees and can tear through bee populations, wiping out entire hives. Bees in cold climates, as in Canada and specifically Alberta, have been shown to be even more vulnerable to the fungus.

    The only existing treatment for Nosema—a fungicide called fumagillin—has been discontinued, making the problem even more critical. With Alberta producing more than 40 per cent of Canada’s honey in 2016, valued at roughly $60 million, the 2018 iGEM team sought to help not only bee populations, but also people in their community as well.

    “We wanted to help find a solution to a pathogen that is devastating to a creature integral to the Albertan economy,” said Anna Kim, a team member studying both biology and psychology. “We also wanted to raise awareness of a problem that deeply affects our province and our communities, but not many people know about.”

    Keeping hives alive

    The UAlberta students developed a solution they call APIS, short for “antifungal porphyrin-based intervention system.” The result of their research is a honeybee probiotic, fed to hive populations by beekeepers and helping to eliminate the fungus in bees’ digestive systems.

    “Very often in science, we first find ‘solutions’ and then we go looking for a problem,” said Robert Campbell, professor in the Department of Chemistry and mentor to the iGEM team. “It is so important to identify a problem first and then find the best solution, no matter where that leads you. This team identified the problem of Nosema infections in honeybees, and was inspired to conceive of an original, feasible, and practical solution to the problem at hand.”

    “Not only does iGEM expose students to topics and areas they are not familiar with, but they get the chance to dive head-on into them,” said Dominic Sauvageau, associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering, “They get to work in a team, develop new skills, and push synthetic biology forward in ways that help society.”

    The three-day finale of the iGEM competition gave the team the chance to showcase APIS and share its work with fellow students, as well as present their findings to judges—where the team took first place in the Food and Nutrition category, achieving a gold medal for the quality and human impact of their research.

    “This is another clear demonstration—to the students, to beekeepers, and the public—that the university is not an ivory tower,” said Campbell. “These students have taken the initiative to apply classroom knowledge to address a real-world threat to an Albertan industry, showing the university has an important role to play in maintaining and improving Alberta’s economy and natural environment.”

    Want to learn more about APIS and the 2018 UAlberta iGEM team? Check out the team’s project website. Interested in student success stories? Find out how University of Alberta students are innovating with science and technology at the Faculty of Science’s new Student Innovation Centre.