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Researchers find natural way to fight honeybee-killing bacteria

Brian Wilcox
Professor Sandra Burnett, left, and her student Bryan Merrill, have developed a treatment for the devastating American Foulbrood disease. The bacteria that cause the disease kill off bee larvae, and the disease can lead to hive collapse.

There are all kinds of diseases and other problems that are hurting honeybees. One of them is a bacterial infection called American Foulbroodand it’s been a problem for bees around the country for decades. The disease kills bee larvae and can lead to the entire hive collapsing.

"This is using nature in order to fight nature, basically." — Sandra Burnett, lead researcher

Researchers at Brigham Young University have come up with a natural way to fight back. They’re using a kind of virus — a phage — that infects and replicates within a bacterium.

"This is using nature in order to fight nature, basically," says Sandra Burnett, an associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young.

"We see phages naturally in the environment, so what our goal has been is to find phages that will infect this bacteria, and capture [these phages] and have them ready to actually do an attack and kill the bacteria for us."

Inspiration found in her own backyard

Credit Brian Wilcox
American Foulbrood is a disease that kills bee larvae and can lead to hive collapse.

Burnett is a backyard beekeeper and has a few hives at her house. 

"I knew that this bacterial infection was a problem in beehives and I decided I wanted to use this as our target bacteria and see if we could find phages to solve this problem in bees, " she says.

Bryan Merrill, a senior at BYU, was there to help. He found out about Burnett's research while taking a course called "Phage Hunters." He joined the project shortly after.

"We found, right now we have identified, about four [phages] that work pretty well [at treating American Foulbrood]," he says. But he says more testing is needed to determine how effective it will be as a treatment.

"We're still in the preliminary studies right now but this is what we've seen: we put these phages on beehives and we notice an improvement," he says. "It's really, really good."

A lock and key

"They work like a lock and a key. The phage is the key and the bacteria has a specific lock on it. So one particular phage can only infect one type of bacteria, generally speaking." — Bryan Merrill, student researcher

Merrill says phages hone in on a specific bacterium.

"Phages are really, really natural and they're really safe. They work like a lock and a key. The phage is the key and the bacteria has a specific lock on it. So one particular phage can only infect one type of bacteria, generally speaking."

Merrill points out that phage treatment is incredibly specific to the bacteria researchers want it to kill, unlike antibiotics, the current standard treatment for American Foulbrood.

"When you treat a beehive with antibiotics, it'll knock down the population of all the healthy bacteria that bees need to survive, as well as the Foulbrood bacteria."

Researchers in a2012 study found that bees have a small and well-characterized number of gut bacteria and the widespread use of antibiotics has created resistance in some strains of Foulbrood. 

Merrill emphasizes that phages are different:
"They get in, they do their job, they multiply until the bacteria is gone and when the bacteria is gone, the phages just disappear without a sign."

FDA approval needed  

To make this treatment more widely available, first Burnett and Merrill need FDA approval because the bees are used to pollinate plants that go into food for human consumption. It's a long process. 

Burnett says the FDA not only requires safety testing, which they're already doing, but also efficacy testing.

"That means we actually need contact with beekeepers that have infected hives, so we can get the number of treatments and the percentages of our success rate. The data is needed in order for us to continue to process the FDA papers."

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.