A biochemist’s extraction of data from honey honors her beekeeper father


— One scientist’s sweet tribute to her father may one day give beekeepers clues
about their colonies’ health, as well as help warn others when crop diseases or
pollen allergies are about to strike.

Those are all possible applications that
biochemistry researcher Rocío Cornero of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.,
sees for her work on examining proteins in honey. Cornero described
her unpublished work
December 9 at the annual joint meeting of the American
Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization.

Amateur beekeepers often don’t
understand what is stressing bees in their hives, whether lack of water,
starvation or infection with pathogens, says Cornero, whose father kept bees
before his death earlier this year. “What we see in the honey can tell us a
story about the health of that colony,” she says.

Bees are like miniature scientists that
fly and sample a wide variety of environmental conditions, says cell biologist Lance
Liotta, Cornero’s mentor at George Mason. As bees digest pollen, soil and water,
bits of proteins from other organisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses
also end up in the insects’ stomachs. Honey, in turn, is basically bee vomit,
Liotta says, and contains a record of virtually everything the bee came in
contact with, as well as proteins from the bees themselves.

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“The information archive in honey is
unbelievable,” Liotta says. But until now, scientists have had a hard time
studying proteins in honey. “It’s so gooey and sticky and hard to work with,”
he says. Sugars in honey gum up lab equipment usually used to isolate proteins.

So Cornero developed a method to pull
peptides — bits of proteins — out of honey using nanoparticles — a feat no
other researchers have previously managed, Liotta says. Once extracted from the
honey, the peptides are analyzed by mass spectrometry to determine the order of
amino acids that make up each fragment of protein. Those peptides are then
compared with a database of proteins to determine which organisms produced the
honey proteins.  

A group of high school students working
at George Mason for the summer collected 13 honey samples from Virginia,
Maryland. Two additional samples came from Cornero’s hometown of Mar del Plata
in Argentina. The Argentine honey was from the last batches her father
collected from his bees.

Rocío Cornero
Rocío Cornero, a biochemistry student at George Mason University, is shown transferring honey into small test tubes. Cornero developed a way to analyze proteins in honey as a tribute to her late father, a beekeeper.Courtesy of R. Cornero

Proteins from bees, microbes and a wide
variety of plants were among the components of the honey. Peptides in honey
from one sample came from several bacteria, including some that normally live
in bees’ guts and a few disease-causing varieties. Proteins from viruses and
parasites that infect bees, including deformed wing virus and Varroa mites,
which have been implicated
in colony collapse disorder
, were also found in the sample (SN: 1/17/18). Those results could mean
bees from that location may have trouble surviving the winter when the insects’
immune systems are less able to fight infections.

Cornero also determined by looking at
pollen and plant proteins in the honey that bees had pollinated a variety of
plants, including sunflowers, lilacs, olive trees, red clover, potatoes and
tomatoes. By analyzing pollen peptides, scientists may one day be able to learn
whether claims that certain honey is made from wildflowers, clover or orange
blossoms are really true.

What’s more, counting pollen peptides in
local hives could, for example, give allergy sufferers a better idea of when
hay fever is likely to flare in their area, Cornero says. The researchers also
found plant virus proteins in the honey, an indication of the types of diseases
that may be stalking local crops.

Next, Cornero hopes to develop a rapid protein
test that would allow beekeepers to plunge a dipstick into honey and rapidly gauge
their hives’ health. “Having my dad as a beekeeper, I know how beekeepers work,
and it would be a great way to honor his work,” she says.


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