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US (NC): Honeybee research funding opens door to $1M UNCG grant

Olav Rueppell, Ph.D., says his research at the University of North Carolina Greensboro clearly illustrates how relatively small but timely grant funding from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center can have a big impact.

The associate professor of biology leads a research program studying ways to improve the health of honeybees. His lab was recently awarded nearly $1 million in a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. He says that support may have been seriously interrupted without the earlier help from NCBiotech.

“The Biotech Center funding was like a bridge to us,” Rueppell explained in a recent interview. The Center awarded Rueppell a $75,000 Biotechnology Research Grant in 2009 and, more recently, a $68,627 Technology Enhancement Grant.

Postdoctoral researcher Kaira Wagoner, Olav Rueppell, and undergraduate researcher Christopher Reid work with honey bee brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae). -- UNCG photos by Martin W. Kane

Rueppell recounts the story he considers “typical of the grant culture we have.”

“We had a talented graduate student, Kaira Wagoner, who had found interesting results, but we were worried about her leaving and going somewhere else. The NCBiotech grant paid her salary so we were able to keep her on board and prevented interruption of that project and could take advantage of every field season.” For honeybees, that’s late spring to early fall.

“That was really good, because we didn’t have enough results at that point to be competitive for this big USDA grant,” Rueppell said. “The Biotech Center grant helped us get more results to convince the (USDA) reviewers this was a promising avenue to pursue.”

Fighting one of the biggest threats to bees
Wagoner, now a postdoc, conducted research focused on one of the biggest treats to honeybee hives called Varroa mites, also called Varroa destructor. Tiny arachnids, barely visible to the naked eye, they suck the blood of bee larvae in their honeycomb cells.

In addition to killing bees directly, they can also infect the hives with viruses. In her doctoral dissertation research, Wagoner studied what is called “bee hygienic behavior.” Worker bees patrol the honeycomb cells and yank out the Varroa mites. Wagoner discovered that a chemical signal induces the workers to start policing the cells.

Rueppell’s lab has since synthesized the chemical, and is looking at others that may affect honeybee behavior and improve hive health. “We’re still looking for additional compounds,” he said.

Biotech Center helped with more than finances
Rueppell said the NCBiotech help included networking benefits as well as financial ones, “so that we could reach out over time to colleagues. The big USDA grant is really to a four-person collaborative,” he said.

While UNCG is the lead, and most of the research will be done there, it also includes experts in other disciplines from North Carolina State University, The University of California at Riverside, and from the University of Minnesota. “I don’t think the project would have been funded if we hadn’t tied in other experts,” Rueppell said.

Going forward, moving the project toward an application in practice in bee-keeping operations is the goal. Wagoner is the lead researcher on the field project funded by the USDA grant.

“I want to express my gratitude to the funding mechanism NCBiotech provides,” Rueppell added. “The big universities get a lot of attention, but NCBiotech, in providing early funding to smaller campuses, does a good job of leveling the playing field.”

Source: North Carolina Biotechnology Center (Allan Maurer)
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