A team of scientists from Masaryk University has described a structure of bee viruses which can cause lethal infections in honeybees and bumblebees. Experts led by Pavel Plevka from the MU CEITEC Institute are the first in the world to describe the viruses to the atomic level and observe changes in the structure of viruses after they enter the cell. Results of the research could help reduce the number of infections in bees. The findings of the research have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
Bee populations in North America and Europe have declined over recent decades partly due to infections caused by viruses. Nowadays, scientists are aware of 25 types of bee viruses that cause serious illnesses such as wing deformation. “Viruses of the families Iflaviridae and Dicistroviridae are among the most important ones. We have described four species which represent both families,” said Plevka, a structural virologist.
The experts examined viral structures for two years, describing not only what the viruses look like but also the mechanisms by which they infect cells. “A viral infection begins when the virus enters the cell and releases its genetic information there,” explained Plevka. “The infected cell takes the information and starts to produce more viruses. In order to release its genetic information into the cell, the virus must open the protein capsid. This is the moment we have described.”
Plevka’s team cooperates with Antonín Přidal at Brno Mendel University, who prepares bee pupae infected with viruses. According to Přidal, the research could help solve problems in honeybee breeding. “In laboratories at the Department of Apiculture we are able to infect large groups of bees, which is necessary for the structural studies that follow,” Přidal said.
Besides bee viruses, the structural virologists at CEITEC are studying human viruses (mainly picornaviruses), too. This large family of microorganisms causes a wide range of illnesses, from the common cold to life-threatening encephalitis. As the virologists write on their website, there are currently no anti-picornavirus drugs for human use. The researchers are also interested in so-called bacteriophages – viruses which infect bacteria, and which can be used in treatment of diseases caused by bacteria. Due to the growing resistance of bacteria, bacteriophages could come to be used in treatment instead of antibiotics.