Saving the Bees with UAlberta Undergrads

I have a love-hate relationship with bugs. I know they’re super important to the ecosystem, but I just cannot stand being anywhere near them. For example, I saw a spider in my house the other day and now I’m a little wary about the stove where I saw it crawl behind.

So I’m really not sure how the University of Alberta iGEM team managed to survive this summer working with bees.

Alberta’s other major industry (outside of energy) is agriculture. Within agriculture, we have apiculture—the raising and farming of bees—and it’s a surprisingly prominent part of our economy. Alberta produces 41% of Canada’s honey, far more than any other province, and exported over $33M worth of honey in 2016. And that’s not even considering the contributions that bees make through agricultural pollination. Stats Canada predicted that bees contributed 4 to 5.5 billion dollars to Canada’s agroeconomy in 2016.

Not bad.

Honey production by province, 2016
Alberta produces almost half of Canada’s honey. | Source: Statistics Canada

The Blight of the Bumblebee

What is bad, though, is a nasty little fungus called Nosema ceranae. It infests the guts of honeybees and saps them of their energy. Weak bees mean a weak colony, and up to 80% of a hive can be lost if left untreated.

The Western honeybee, Apis mellifera, is now one of the biggest carriers of the fungus. And that’s bad news to Albertan beekeepers, as these undergrads found out. Our cold winters are hard enough on the hives, and Nosema makes them even more fragile.

To rub salt on the wound, there was a treatment for Nosema, and it was even made in Alberta.

Medivet Pharmaceuticals Ltd. was a High River-based company that produced a drug called fumagillin. Fumagillin’s a potent antifungal used to treat Nosema and other fungal infections in bees. Though not used a lot in Europe or the southern US, fumagillin is very important in colder climates like Alberta.

The problem is that Medivet went out of business just this summer. They were the only producers of fumagillin in the world.

This means that Albertan beekeepers only have a very limited stock left of the drug, and that means things are looking rough for next winter.


Having done their market research and identified their problem, the team designed the Antifungal Porphyrin-based Intervention System (APIS). This uses another molecule as an alternative to fumagillin.

(Side note: “APIS” is probably the most clever acronym you could possibly come up with for this project.)

Porphyrins are a class of compounds that have antifungal properties in bees. Existing research has shown that the chemically-synthesized porphyrin PP(Asp)2 can kill Nosema spores.

The team decided that they would try to use a similar compound, PPIX (porphyrin 9). PPIX can be biologically synthesized in E. coli much more easily than PP(Asp)2.

The idea is to get E. coli to make PPIX and then feed them to honeybees in order to colonize their guts and protect them against Nosema infections.

Busy, Busy

The students engineered E. coli to synthesize PPIX using the heme synthesis pathway. A lot of research has already been conducted by other labs demonstrating that it is possible, so the students will continue to work with the bacteria in order to confirm it.

While that was going on, the team also decided to test the health effects of PPIX on bees. With the help of the U of A researchers that work with live bees, the students got a chance to test the effects of PPIX on their health.

They managed to get a few key results:

  1. Pumping out tons of PPIX in E. coli doesn’t seem to affect their health, which means they can use it to produce a lot of drug without harming production rate
  2. Non-engineered E. coli doesn’t seem to harm the bees when fed to them (healthy or sick)
  3. PPIX by itself dramatically reduces the spore load of Nosema in sick bees when fed

Unfortunately, the team couldn’t post their analysis of PPIX’s effects on the health and longievity of bees in time, but I’m interested in seeing those when they come out.

Generate Some Buzz

Results seem promising, and I’m excited to see what the team decides to do with this research in the future. Maybe there’ll be another Alberta-based vet-med company in the near future. Who knows?

Until then, you can follow the team on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The team will be presenting on Friday, October 26th at 4:15pm EST. Good luck, guys!

Missed out? Be sure to see what the other teams have been up to this year!

Photo credit: UAlberta iGEM

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