Using a cutting-edge technique that may someday find applications with humans, U.S. researchers have found a bee virus that appears strongly connected to mysterious devastation of commercial bee colonies nationwide for more than a year.
Instead of trying to culture bacteria or isolate viruses — often a lengthy process — the researchers ground up the bees and rapidly sifted through all of the genetic material in search of a suspicious microorganism.
The new study, published online Thursday by the journal Science, revealed nearly all affected colonies contained a recently identified virus called Israel Acute Paralysis Virus, or IAPV. By contrast, only one of 21 unaffected samples tested positive for the virus.
The innovative method the scientists used may be applicable to the search for unusual germs that might underlie chronic human diseases such as obesity. That could be a lasting legacy of the hunt for the bee culprit, said study co-author Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University's center for infection and immunity.
"I really do think these new technologies will revolutionize our approach to epidemiology," Lipkin said. He said that if similar techniques had been applied to the SARS outbreak in 2003, they could have yielded a viral suspect "in as short as a week."
If scientists can prove the viral infection is helping cause massive bee die-offs, it could clear the way for beekeepers to breed colonies that are genetically resistant to the disease. Fruit and vegetable growers are desperate to defeat the disorder, which threatens bees that pollinate apples, carrots, blueberries, almonds and other foods.
For all the interest in IAPV, the authors said they suspect the bee condition arises from many factors, such as poor nutrition, parasitic mites, the stress of moving bees cross-country and pesticide exposure.
How the new virus interacts with other causes to ravage bees may be the next big mystery to tackle, said report co-author Edward C. Holmes, a professor of virology and evolutionary genetics at Penn State University.