Genetic scientists in B.C. are trying to breed a better bee that can survive a mysterious new henomenon that is wiping out colonies across North America.
On Monday, the provincial government gave Genome BC $25 million to continue research on a variety of health, agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining molecular biology projects, including more than $2 million to try to understand the root causes of "Colony Collapse Disorder" in honey bees.
That disorder, discovered in 2006 after it wiped out whole apiaries in the U.S. and Canada, has created a crisis because bees are the world's major pollinators. Between one-quarter and one-third of all food produced in the world originates from insect pollination, according to Paul van Westendorp, the chief apiculture specialist for the province's Ministry of Agriculture.
But determining the cause of CCD is proving difficult. Scientists believe it may be caused by a variety of compounding problems including new viruses, diseases and prolonged exposure to insecticides and herbicides. But one of the key factors is believed to be a virulent pest called the Varroa mite, which latches on to bees and their larvae and sucks blood out of them. The research by Leonard Foster at the University of B.C. will look at mapping the DNA of honey bees and isolating strains of the insect that are resistant to Varroa, van Westendorp said.
"Much of the thinking is that ultimately the bees themselves must develop some form of better, natural resistance to these viruses and mites. But in order to select for that kind of genetic bee stock, you have to carry out nothing but endless amounts of research and selective breeding and that takes a lot of time. We don't have that kind of time," van Westendorp said.
"What Dr. Foster is involved with is developing a very good diagnostic tool that can be employed where certain lines of bees with certain genetic characteristics can be quickly identified and selected. Those can then be selected for further breeding."
Foster was away on holidays and could not be reached for comment. The bee project is just the tip of the iceberg for Genome BC, a not-for-profit agency that works with academia, government and industry to apply molecular biology solutions to various industry and health sectors.
The $25 million, when coupled with another $50 million the province gave Genome BC in 2008, will be leveraged into $300 million in research funding with the help of the federal government, private industry and charities. A first phase of Foster's bee research was also funded at that time.
"What this gets us, if you like, is applications of genomics towards actual products or services in those sectors, which will then provide more jobs and competitiveness for the industries or governments operating in those sectors," said Alan Winter, the president and CEO of Genome BC.
More than 60 per cent of the money will go toward medical and health research, with the rest split between agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining.
Winter cited three personal health projects involving molecular biology that are showing results: dealing with adverse drug reactions in children, targeting specific cancers at the cellular level and trying to counteract the need for antirejection drugs in transplants.
Other non-medical projects include trying to identify the triggers in acid rock drainage in mining and creating diseaseresistant shellfish.
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