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K-State Today

June 26, 2020

Biologist receives National Science Foundation grant to fund research on honeybees

Submitted by Rollie Clem

The National Science Foundation has awarded $177,191 in support of a new research project whose goal is to produce cell lines from the European honeybee, Apis melifera. Rollie Clem in the Division of Biology will carry out the research in collaboration with Carol Fassbinder-Orth at Creighton University and Scott Santos at Auburn University. A separate award of $122,719 was made by the National Science Foundation to Fassbinder-Orth in support of the project.

Honeybees and other pollinators are vital to agriculture and ecosystems, but their populations are in decline worldwide. One of the major contributing factors to weakening honeybee health is that they are infected by a variety of viruses. However, the study of honeybee viruses has been greatly hampered by a lack of reliable cell lines, especially immortalized cell lines — cell lines that are able to proliferate indefinitely, similar to cancer cells.

Virology research relies heavily on being able to isolate viruses and study their replication and other characteristics in controlled environments away from other microbes. Immortalized cell lines are vital for this type of research because they provide a consistent, renewable source of cells. But there are currently no available immortalized cell lines produced from any hymenopteran insect: bees, wasps and ants.

"Essentially all honeybees are infected with one or more, often several, viruses at any given time," Clem said. "This, plus the fact that most honeybee viruses will not replicate in cells from any other organism, currently makes it very difficult to isolate and work with these viruses."

The two-year project was funded through the EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research, or EAGER, mechanism, which funds novel ideas that are high risk/high reward in nature. The research team will use methods established in the model insect Drosophila melanogaster to attempt to produce immortalized cell lines from Apis melifera.

Once established, the researchers will eliminate endogenous viruses from the immortalized cells using methods established in other insect cell lines, which will allow researchers to use the immortalized bee cell lines to isolate honeybee viruses and work with them individually for the first time. The cell lines produced as a result of this award will be important resources for other researchers around the world. The work will also involve outreach efforts, both at K-State and at Creighton University, to educate the public on the importance of honeybee health to society.