• Taylor Houston

AFB 'Vaccine’ Researchers Seek Beekeeper Input

Recently Dr Heather Hendrickson’s lab has been in full swing hunting down the final pieces of a bacteriophage cocktail to treat the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae. The University of Canterbury senior lecturer updates us on the latest research her team has been working on and a new survey available to beekeepers to help secure future funding to continue the fight against American foulbrood (AFB).

By Taylor Houston

Since 2018, the Hendrickson Lab has been running the Active Bacteriophages for AFB Eradication project (ABAtE) with the purpose of “finding bacteriophages that would be able to kill the honeybee pathogen Paenibacillus larvae (P. Larvae) which is the causative agent of AFB,” says Hendrickson.

Initially based out of Massey University in Auckland, in 2022 Hendrickson’s lab moved to University of Canterbury.

Finding funding for research projects is regularly a struggle for scientists, but Hendrickson has come up with a way beekeepers can help the ABAtE funding drive, without contributing a single cent of their own. A simple survey on how beekeepers would receive any potential American foulbrood (AFB) treatment, which might emerge from their research, will go a long way in determining the value of their project in the eyes of potential grant providers.

Thus far, the beekeeping community has been hugely supportive of their work and has sent Hendrickson and her colleagues over 400 soil samples from apiary sites all around the country. This has led to the scientist and her team developing mixtures of many different phages or ‘bacteriophage cocktails’ that are able to protect against 93% of P. larvae strains.

The ABAtE research team, Heather Hendrickson, left, and Danielle Kok, say beekeepers completing a survey on the potential use of their research findings will aid their chance of securing ongoing funding for the project.

“It’s actually surprisingly simple to find bacteriophages,” says Hendrickson when asked on the process of isolating phages from soil.

“Soil samples are placed in a buffer and left to sit until these tiny bacteriophages are released from the soil. The buffer is then filtered through a very fine filter that only lets phages pass through.”

Much like pouring gasoline on a grass lawn will leave patches of dead grass, these bacteriophages are then poured onto a bacterial ‘lawn’ of P. Larvae.

“You then look for places where the bacterial lawn is killed because of the bacteriophages you poured on,” she explains.

This process led the scientist to a fascinating observation. “All of the phage positive soil samples have come from healthy hives,” remarks Hendrickson, “which indicates that healthy hives already have these bacteriophages in them, protecting honeybee larvae from an AFB infection.

The ABAtE team has collated a wide range of bacteriophages from around New Zealand from soil samples submitted to them, with the goal to combine them into a cocktail of phages which can be applied to beehives to help prevent AFB forming.

So far the Hendrickson lab has isolated 26 unique bacteriophages which successfully kill all known strains of P. larvae except two. These two strains are known to originate around the Otago region. This year Hendrickson and her colleagues are aiming to find unique bacteriophages which target these final two strains of the AFB pathogen.

“We would love for beekeepers across the country, and especially from the Otago region to continue sending us soil samples,” Hendrickson says.

While the potential to effectively ‘vaccinate’ a hive against future AFB infections using bacteriophages will be a boon to beekeepers, the implications of the project extend far beyond the beehive.

“The funding we are looking for is to continue developing bacteriophages for not just apiculture, but for industries such as kiwifruit, aquaculture and stone fruit. We want to put forward a project that will allow us to build a pipeline of rapid bacteriophage development that could help a lot of different industries,” she says.

Hendrickson has released a new, short survey to gather information from beekeepers about their experiences with AFB which will be hugely important in her bid to secure future funding.

“The grant we are writing now is to investigate how stable this bacteriophage cocktail is when applied to a hive. That’s really important, for beekeepers to know how long they would have protection and how often they would have to retreat,” says Hendrickson.

One survey question asks beekeepers a price they would be willing to pay to treat AFB in their operation, which Hendrickson says is an important piece of information for them to gather – and beekeepers to answer as accurately as possible – if research is to continue.

“We need to know what an AFB treatment is worth to beekeepers so we know if we can produce bacteriophages for that price. If beekeepers did low-ball their answers, it would influence the feasibility of the project if we cannot produce bacteriophages for what beekeepers are willing to spend.”

Data from the survey will stay within the ABAtE team and will not be released to anyone.

“We respect the privacy of beekeepers and ensure that there are no ways that individual operations can be located or evaluated based on the information,” the research lead explains.

With only two strains of P. Larvae left to find phages against, it seems the end could be insight for Hendrickson’s phage hunt. However, the science her lab has developed over the years is bound to spill over to other industries where the phage hunt starts anew.

If you would like to participate in the ABAtE survey and assist their funding drive, please follow the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DQWZXRF

If you would like a free soil sampling tube and return envelope, please email danielle.kok@canterbury.ac.nz


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