The international Illumina Agricultural Greater Good Grant recognizes research proposals that will increase the sustainability, productivity, and nutritional density of agriculturally important crop and livestock species. Professor Bertram Brenig, from the University of Goettingen, Institute of Veterinary Medicine is the 2021 winner for his research proposal about the Western Honey Bee. Despite being one of the most important pollinators, honey bees currently face multiple challenges and population decline. This research project will use genomics to help understand vulnerabilities impacting the Western Honey Bee.
DNA is the "blue-print" or instructions for every living cell and is composed of two strands twisted into a double helix. Molecules from each strand are paired up in "base pairs": the fundamental building blocks of the DNA code. This prize provides Illumina products and services to enable the winner to analyse about 20 trillion (2 x 1013) base pairs to support their research projects. The Western Honey Bee genome is about a tenth of the size of the human genome and consists of 236 million base pairs that vary according to differences within the bee population. Illumina is an international company specialising in genetic sequencing technology.
Between 1947 and 2005, US Bee Keepers reported losing over half of their domestic honey bees, while worldwide 50 percent of wild bees have become extinct. Bee health is impacted by many factors: loss of natural environment; use of pesticides on weeds; and susceptibility to certain pests, like varroa mites. Using genomics, researchers can get a deeper understanding of genetic vulnerabilities and apply this information to ensure the insects' long-term survival. "We hope that the project will contribute to the worldwide initiatives and efforts to prevent the increasing mass extinction of honey bees and secure survival of pollination-dependent species, which of course includes humankind," explains Brenig.
Brenig and his collaborator, Professor Kaspar Bienefeld from the Institute of Bee Research at Hohen Neuendorf & Humboldt University of Berlin, plan to use comparative whole-genome sequencing, genome-wide association analysis, and epigenomic profiling to unravel differences in honey bees' resistance to parasite infestation. "According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 43.7 percent of Western Honey Bee colonies were lost in just one year between 2019 and 2020," says Brenig. "Considering about 90 percent of flowering plants and 75 percent of crop species depend on pollination by insects, you can see how this is of the utmost relevance for global biodiversity to stop mass extinction of pollinators."
"We prioritize projects that can improve sustainability in agriculture especially in important areas of agriculture that today are underserved by public funding and resources," says Lisa Eldridge, Associate Director of Agrigenomics at Illumina. "Our 2021 winning project focusing on bee health aligns with all our grant objectives and we are humbled and enthusiastic to be supporting this research that is vital to the survival of our most important pollinators."