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Bees synthesize nutrients to nourish their gut microbiota

Scientists at the University of Lausanne‘s Department of Fundamental Microbiology (DMF) in Dorigny, led by Professor Philipp Engel, have embarked on an intriguing study using western honey bees (Apis mellifera) to answer a fundamental question about gut microbiota: Do hosts provide essential nutrients to their native bacteria, enabling colonization? 

The research, published in Nature Microbiology on January 15, 2024, uncovers fascinating insights into the symbiotic relationship between bees and their gut bacteria.

Simple microbiome 

The bee, known for producing honey, presents a simpler system for studying gut microbiota compared to humans, with a microbiome consisting of only about twenty bacterial species. 

In the Engel group’s laboratory, bees are raised without gut bacteria and then introduced to specific bacterial species to colonize their gut.

Snodgrassella alvi

In their study, Dr. Andrew Quinn and PhD candidate Yassine El Chazli investigated how gut bacteria fare when bees are fed only sugar water, lacking other nutrients. They focused on a particular bacterium, Snodgrassella alvi, which can’t metabolize sugar yet still colonized the bee gut under these conditions.

How the research was conducted 

Proving the hypothesis that bees directly provide essential nutrients to S. alvi was challenging. Collaborating with Professor Anders Meibom’s team, experts in NanoSIMS (Nanoscale Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry) technology, they conducted an experiment using glucose with 13C isotopes. 

The bees were then colonized with S. alvi, and the fixed guts were examined using electron microscopy and NanoSIMS. This process allowed them to create a 2D image showing that S. alvi cells were enriched in 13C, indicating the bees were synthesizing food for their gut bacteria.

Critical new insights

This research highlights a complex metabolic synergy between bees and their gut microbiota, which could be crucial in understanding bees’ vulnerability to climate change, pesticides, or new pathogens. For instance, exposure to glyphosate has been shown to make bees more susceptible to pathogens and reduce S. alvi abundance in the gut.

“This is a wonderful example of cutting-edge, truly interdisciplinary scientific collaboration,” said Meibom. “When we work together in this way, there are not many academic environments in the world that have more to offer.”

Broader implications 

Dr. Quinn, co-lead author of the study, suggests that this approach could extend to other gut microorganisms, potentially feeding on compounds derived from their hosts. He further speculates that these findings might explain the specialized and conserved nature of bees’ gut microbiota. The team’s research sheds light on the potential impact of environmental stressors on the delicate balance between bees and their gut bacteria, which may contribute to their increasing vulnerability.

Thus, the study represents a significant advancement in understanding the complex interactions within gut microbiota ecosystems. It opens new avenues for research into how similar mechanisms operate in other species, including humans, and how these interactions affect the overall health and resilience of the host organisms.

This groundbreaking research not only deepens our understanding of the symbiotic relationships in nature but also underscores the importance of preserving these delicate ecosystems amidst growing environmental challenges. The insights gained from this study could lead to more effective strategies for protecting bee populations, which are crucial for biodiversity and agricultural productivity worldwide.

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