Environmental DNA, a whole ecosystem in a drop of honey

When bees are looking for food, they do not gather only nectar from flowers, but also genetic traces of the many organisms living in that ecosystem. Making sense of all the pieces of information collected by bees is not easy because every genetic fragment belongs to a specific organism. Bioinformatics can help us tell them part.

By using an innovative method for analysing environmental DNA (abbreviated eDNA), a research team from the University of Bologna’s department of agricultural and food sciences gathered a lot of information regarding organisms living in the area where honey was produced. Professor and animal genomics expert Luca Fontanesi coordinated the research team composed by Samuele Bovo, Anisa Ribani, Valerio Joe Utzeri and Giuseppina Schiavo. Technical University of Denmark’s Francesca Bertolini also collaborated to the research.

The study was published on scientific journal Plos One. It has a long and self-explicatory title; Shotgun metagenomics of honey DNA: Evaluation of a methodological approach to describe a multi-kingdom honey bee derived environmental DNA signature.

As you can see by the title, researchers tested a method for analysing DNA segments extracted from honey. They tried this method on two different kinds of honey – eucalyptus honey and orange blossom honey. They used Ion torrent sequencing, a method of DNA sequencing that makes it possible to analyse multiple samples at the same time, making the analysing process faster. Also, compared to other sequencing methods, it provides a big amount of data.

At the end of the experiment researchers noted how this method might turn out to be useful in future research as it gives an answer to many questions in just one blow.

To be more specific, analysing honey through DNA sequencing can be a way to assess bees and plants’ health. We can also obtain information on other insects – insects producing honeydew for one – and monitor potential causes of disease for both bees and crops such as fungi, bacteria, parasites and viruses.

In addition, this sequencing method can help us to check the ecosystem bees live in. It can also provide a genetic proof of honey’s origin, which in turn would help expose those attempting food fraud, thus guaranteeing quality to those who buy it.

Another positive aspect of this kind of analysis is that it provides data on pesticides’ usage, so it can work as tool for monitoring farmers’ practices. Lastly, it can detect those yeasts contributing to the development of honey’s beneficial properties such as its anti-bacteria effect.