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Can pollen protect pollinators from pathogens?

One of the biggest challenges biologists face today is understanding and managing the complex ways in which pathogens proliferate and travel. In recent decades, a wide number of pathogens are seriously affecting – and often devastating – plant pollinators.

Bees, for instance, have faced massive waves of deadly infections from parasites such as Crithidia bombi. Since insect pollinators are responsible for crucial ecosystem services estimated at well over $200 billion worldwide per year, their pathogen-induced decline has raised serious concerns, leading some scientists and policy-makers to call the situation a veritable “insect apocalypse.”

A research team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst has recently been awarded a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to study the complex interplay among pathogens, pollinators, and the types of food that pollinators consume. This project will be conducted across a variety of scales – from the molecular to the community-wide – and is likely to have immediate applications for ecosystem protection and agricultural practices worldwide.  

Biologists do not yet have a clear understanding of what role plants play in the interaction between pathogens and pollinators, or what function the quantity and quality of food available to pollinators may play in the insects’ ability to cope with disease.

While flowers provide essential nutrients for pollinators, they can also be sites of disease transmission. At the same time though, some varieties of nectar and pollen could help pollinators fight disease.

“Our ultimate goal with this grant is to figure out what sort of plant composition, available as food sources for the pollinators, reduces infection,” explained project leader Lynn Adler, a professor of Biology at UMass Amherst.

Professor Adler’s previous research has found that sunflower pollen seems to be particularly efficient in helping the pollinators that consume it resist a wide-range of diseases. However, it is not yet clear why this is the case.

For the new project, Professor Adler has assembled an interdisciplinary team of scientists, including mathematical modelers, biochemists, molecular biologists, and ecologists, to answer this and related questions, by studying the molecular, cellular, organismal, species, and community-level interactions of plants, pollinators, and pathogens.

Moreover, Professor Adler and her team will use part of the funding to train a new generation of biologists and ecologists, who could play important roles in future investigations of the mysteries of life on Earth.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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