Sustainability grant awarded to Honey Bee Research


Illumina has announced that the 2021 recipient of its Agricultural Greater Good grant is Dr Bertram Brenig, professor of molecular biology at the University of Göttingen. Brenig is researching the Western Honey Bee, a pollinator facing multiple challenges and declining population.

The Agricultural Greater Good Initiative is an annual program that supports research that aims to increase the sustainability, productivity and nutrient density of plant and animal species important for agriculture.

Technological networks
spoke with Brenig and Illumina to learn more about how studying genetic differences in honey bees will improve breeding programs and how Illumina will support this research.

Kate Robinson (KR): What inspired Illumina to establish the Greater Good Initiative and how does the program support agricultural research?

Illumina (i
): The Agricultural Greater Good Initiative grant was launched in 2011 out of our desire to fuel breakthroughs that can increase sustainability. and the nutrient density of plant and animal species important for agriculture.

This initiative recognizes groundbreaking research in the agricultural community that reflects scientific merit and innovation and
harness the power of genomics To help reduce hunger, malnutrition and poverty in the world.

KR: In what ways does Illumina support the winner’s research efforts?

When selecting a winner for this grant, we prioritize projects that can improve sustainability in important areas of agriculture, especially those that are underserved by public funding and resources. Winners receive 20 tbases (Tb) of Illumina NovaSeq sequencing data on samples of their choice to support their project.

KR: Can you tell us about some of the previous laureates and their lines of research?

Some recent winners understand:

2020: Roland Schafleitner –
The International Mung Bean Improvement Network

Grown mainly in Asia, mung bean is an important crop because it has good stress tolerance, but farmers face low yields and disease susceptibility. The grant was awarded to allow testing of new mapping approaches to reveal the genetic basis of important traits in mung bean; maximizing the use of genetic sequencing information helps to better understand the species and accelerates the selection of improved varieties.

2019: Elena Ciani – University of Bari, Italy and International Camel Consortium for Genetic Improvement and Conservation (ICC-GIC)

Camel breeding plays a central role in agriculture in many parts of the world. Due to their adaptability to a variety of environments, camels have many functions as versatile animals used for wool, meat, milk and leather, making them valuable allies in today’s environment. climate change and desertification. The grant was to enable the first-ever whole genome sequencing diversity study to aid applied camel breeding and genetic conservation programs.

2017: G Craig Yencho and Bode Olukolu – North Carolina State University: sequencing the sweet potato to improve food security

Yam (Ipomoea batatas) is the seventh most important food crop in the world due to its adaptability to different climates and is a biofortified staple crop in the fight against vitamin A deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the highly heterozygous and hexaploid nature of its genome, and its 96 chromosomes, make inheritance of traits complex from generation to generation, challenging efforts to use molecular breeding techniques to produce more nutritious sweet potatoes and optimize cultivation according to regional needs. The grant was intended to support the efforts of researchers in developing a de novo whole genome assembly and SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) chip that represents the global diversity of sweetpotato; the use of such a test in breeding programs would optimize cultivation according to regional needs, help develop more nutritious sweet potatoes and improve food security in areas where nutritional resources are lacking.

KR: What dangers honey bees face and what impact could this have on agriculture

Bertram Brenig (BB):
Like other species, honey bees face a number of biotic and abiotic threats contributing to population decline, including parasites, pathogens, habitat loss, climate change, limited food resources, l exposure to pesticides and poor management of beekeeping. It is clear that the interplay of several of these factors is at the root of the problem observed for many years around the world. It is recognized that increasing exposure to parasites and pathogens is an essential part of the problem which together leads to weakening and increasing vulnerability of populations and ultimately their collapse. Honey bees are hosts for various pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. A variety of parasites that infest honey bees have also been identified. These parasites are often intermediate hosts for honey bee pathogens and transmit disease. The infestation of the western honey bee with the Varroa destructor mite has caused severe damage to populations. Varroa mites damage both adult bees and brood. Bees are weakened by mites that suck hemolymph, and mites can transmit diseases (for example, misshapen wing virus) to bees. If a virus and the mite appear in the colony at the same time, their harmful effects on bees are exacerbated.

About 80% of domestic crops depend on pollination by bees and other pollinators. Without this pollination service, there would not only be much less fruit, but also fewer types and varieties of different plants. This is because plants can reproduce by self-fertilization or asexual reproduction without foreign pollen, however, the offspring will then be genetically identical. For the development of new variants, two parents are required. The loss of pollinators will have a direct and dramatic impact on crop yields and diversity.

The common insecticide is harmful to bees in any quantity

KR: Can you elaborate on the methods you plan to use to study the vulnerabilities of honey bees?

In our project, we want to answer essentially three questions:

  1. What are the molecular genetic differences between western honey bees susceptible to Varroa and resistant eastern honey bees?
  2. Is the health-related phenotype (hygienic behavior of Varroa) in oriental honey bees due to epigenetic control by methylation of cytosine (5mC)?
  3. Is there a correlation between the ratio of 5mC and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) when comparing western bees susceptible to Varroa versus resistant eastern honey bees?

To answer these questions, we collected a total of 526 honey bee samples, including 228 western honey bee samples and 106 eastern honey bee samples as well as 32 queens and 160 controls. All honey bees were selected according to the type and intensity of action regarding their hygienic behavior of Varroa. With this we have a very unique collection of extremely well defined samples. In the first set of experiments, we will perform full genome resequencing of all samples and perform genome-wide association analysis. In addition, we hope that with these data, we will be able to fill some existing gaps in the genomes of both species. The data will also allow us to perform phylogenetic studies at a high resolution level. In the second set of experiments, we will focus on the epigenetics of Varroa’s hygienic behavior. Honey bees exhibit a completely different methylation pattern in their genome compared to mammals, for example, and certain social behaviors in honey bees have been shown to be influenced by a specific epigenetic signature. We will therefore determine the methylation pattern (5mC and 5hmC) in all the samples and associate it with the type and intensity of the hygienic behavior of Varroa.

KR: How do you see your research being used to reduce the decline in honey bee populations?

We hope that with the data and results generated within the framework of this project, new molecular mechanisms controlling the hygienic behavior of Varroa mites will be identified. The identification of new molecular mechanisms and genomic variants responsible for the differences between the hygienic behavior of Varroa in western and eastern honey bees will ultimately result in a set of DNA markers that can be used in breeding programs to efficiently select resistant honey bees. .

Illumina and Bertram Brenig Speaking to Kate Robinson, Editorial Assistant for Technology Networks


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