Microbes Sway Bee-havior

Credit: Alex Wild

Credit: Alex Wild

A complex community of thousands of microbes live inside the digestive tracts of humans and other animals. To truly understand our health, behavior and even our ability to learn, we must first understand this gut microbiome inside our bodies. 

Nancy Moran, an integrative biology professor, and her team have been studying the interactions of honeybees and their gut microbiome in the hopes of both protecting the future of the bees and applying this knowledge to better understand the role of the microbiome in human health and behavior. Recently her team has joined efforts with other UT labs, including that of molecular biosciences professor, Jeffrey Barrick, to develop tools that allow them to genetically engineer the gut microbes in bees. 

In one project, the team infected bees with bacteria that produced L-DOPA, which promotes dopamine, a chemical in the brain that can affect memory, emotions and movement. Afterwards, the bees were tested to see how fast they could associate a random smell with an experience, or duration of the association. Scientists could measure both based on observations of when the bees extended their stingers in experiments and what prompted them to do so. Moran and her team found that the bees with the L-DOPA-producing gut bacteria were faster and better at picking up associations and retaining memories.

“We’ve been able to improve their learning with the dopamine-promoting gut bacteria,” Moran said.

While Moran doesn’t expect any direct applications to humans, this finding highlights the dramatic impact that microbiomes have on a host’s health and performance. In addition, she said these new tools for genetic engineering of microbes might be used to protect honeybees from common pathogens, such as the deformed wing virus, that have contributed to the decline in bee populations in recent years.