Montreal Gazette: International students study honey bee viruses with Quebec scientists

French engineering student Marie Marbaix is spending this summer in a Université de Montréal laboratory in Saint-Hyacinthe extracting DNA from honey bees, in a bid to understand the role of parasites and viruses on honey bee hive loss.

“I’m very interested in virology; it’s a domain I wanted to learn more about, so that maybe I can work in that domain later on,” said Marbaix, who is in her second year of a biotechnological engineering degree at Aix-Marseille University in Provence, in southern France.

“It’s a really innovative and important project because the decline of bees is a growing phenomenon and it’s so important to find solutions. To do that, we have to do research.”

Marbaix is one of 1,200 international students participating in internships at 55 Canadian universities this summer thanks to the Mitacs Globalink program. Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that matches post-secondary students from around the world with Canadian university researchers of all disciplines working on projects that are considered “innovation-focused.”

Since 2009, Mitacs has been designing and delivering research programs with funding from the federal and provincial governments, in partnership with industry and Canadian universities. In 2017, the federal government announced $221 million in funding over five years, enough to expand the program to 10,000 internships per year by 2020.

Marais’s bee research is part of a long-term project by Université de Montréal veterinary medicine professor Levon Abrahamyan, in collaboration with his colleague Marie-Odile Benoit-Biancamano.

The scientists are investigating a theory that suggests that bees infected by a common honey bee parasite called the Varroa destructor mite are more vulnerable to a host of other viruses, which negatively affect their lifespans and performance as pollinators.

“We know there are several stress factors that cause the decline of bee populations,” Abrahamyan said. “Here in Canada, we have additional stress factors of extreme winter loss of honey bee colonies. … This phenomenon is important economically and also ecologically because bees are the main pollinators of flowers and agriculture plants.”

A 2007 study on the importance of pollinators found that one in three bites of food humans consume is made possible by pollinators like honey bees. And a 2016 study by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada estimated the economic contribution of honey bees as pollinators to the production of fruits and vegetables in Canada at $720 million.

“Scientists believe the Varroa destructor mite may be a vector to transfer viruses, but Abrahamyan said very few of the viruses that affect bees are well understood.

“Basically what we propose is to characterize and identify all viruses that affect bees. We want to study them temporally and spatially, which is a long-term project.”

He said the ultimate goal of the research is to discover measures to improve the survival rates of bees.

“There are several stress factors that can cause mortality of the honey bee populations worldwide, however, viruses are probably one of the most important — yet least investigated — factors of this phenomenon,” Abrahamyan said.

Marbaix said she is excited to be able to work in a major university laboratory with prominent researchers so early in her academic career. She is learning a technique called High-Throughput Sequencing, which allows her to extract and compare DNA and RNA (ribonucleic acid) from bees affected or not affected by the mite.

“Right now I’m just learning the extraction techniques, but the project itself is just starting, so in other phases we will be identifying the viruses, and after that we will look at the total virome, or all the viruses contained in a bee. And maybe we will discover new viruses.”

This is the third year Abrahamyan is participating in the Mitacs program. He says the program is a great deal for university researchers. They send in a description of their research goals and the project and Mitacs does the pre-selection of candidates, identifying of the best-qualified students from around the world. The program then pays for the students’ travel and living expenses and deals with all paperwork related to immigration.

“It’s a relief because as a scientist you don’t have time to do this, but you get the best-qualified students coming to your lab and helping you develop new projects or doing some tasks of ongoing projects.”

The Mitacs Globalinks program has matched about 380 students from Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Tunisia and Ukraine with researchers at 10 Quebec universities this summer.