How honey bee gut bacteria help to digest their pollen-rich diet

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Credit: Bob Peterson, Flickr

The honey bee gut is colonized by specialized bacteria that help digest components of the floral pollen diet and produce molecules that likely promote bee health. In a study publishing 12 December in the open access journal PLOS Biology, a group of researchers led by Philipp Engel at the University of Lausanne and ETH Zürich, Switzerland, have uncovered which bacterial species perform which specific digestive functions in the bee gut.

The authors measured the repertoire of simple chemical compounds – the so-called "metabolome" – from bee guts. They then compared the gut metabolomes of bees colonized with each bacterial species individually and in combination. By this method, the team identified what each bacterial species contributes to the bee digestion and the various strategies bacteria deploy to co-exist in the animal gut.

Of particular note, they identified one several species of the genus Lactobacillus that digests convert specific plant compounds called flavonoids – abundant in pollen and recently linked to the health of mice and humans through their breakdown by the gut microbiota. Another bee gut bacterial species, Bifidobacterium asteroides, triggered the production of bee hormones that can modulate the immune system and behavior of its host.

Honey bees, a principal pollinator in agriculture and natural environments, have suffered from colony declines in recent years. The gut bacteria in bees and their pollen-rich diet are known contributors to honey bees' health, and understanding the functions of the various bacteria could have implications for colony health as a whole.

"We took advantage of the key characteristics of the bee gut microbiota: its simplicity." says Philipp Engel, the corresponding author of the study. Contrary to human gut microbiota, the bee gut is composed of only a few bacterial species. This makes analyzing each member separately and determining its contribution to the overall metabolite changes in the gut feasible."

"We have identified many exciting metabolic functions of bee gut bacteria. The next step is to understand how these functions impact colony's health so that one day we can apply our findings in apiaries."

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In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Biology: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2003467

Citation: Kešnerová L, Mars RAT, Ellegaard KM, Troilo M, Sauer U, Engel P (2017) Disentangling metabolic functions of bacteria in the honey bee gut. PLoS Biol 15(12): e2003467. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003467

Funding: European Research Council https://erc.europa.eu/funding/starting-grants (grant number ERC-StG MicroBeeOme). Received by PE. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Swiss National Science Foundation http://www.snf.ch/en/Pages/default.aspx (grant number 31003A_160345). Received by PE. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. ERA-Net http://ec.europa.eu/research/era/era-net_en.html (grant number ERASysAPP). Received by US. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Media Contact

Philipp Engel
[email protected]

http://www.plos.org

Related Journal Article

http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003467

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