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Sydney bee researcher gets her stripes

15 March 2017
Bee immunisation project set to take off with coveted award win

Molecular geneticist, Dr Emily Remnant is creating a buzz in the horticultural and agricultural sectors with her innovative work in immunising bees against devastating viruses.  

Dr Emily Remnant receives her prizes from Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Anne Ruston.

Postdoctoral researcher in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Dr Emily Remnant has been awarded the top honour at the Australian Government’s 2017 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Dr Remnant received the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Award, as well as the industry category award sponsored by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC). Her awards are accompanied by $44,000 to use towards her ground-breaking work.

“It is such an honour to receive these awards and I’m so grateful to the RIRDC and to the Minister for these accolades.” 

The special award was presented by the Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Anne Ruston, on behalf of the Minister, Barnaby Joyce at the gala evening of the ABARES Outlook 2017 conference.  

Dr Remnant is embarking upon an innovative approach to improve the plight of our striped pollinators.  

Preventative measures to avoid colony deaths could be worth up to $6 billion to fruit and vegetable production across Australia.
Dr Emily Remnant

Dr Emily Remnant in her lab

“The aim is to make our bees more resilient to viruses. Colony collapse is a striking issue around the world, and one of the causes involves viruses carried by the parasitic Varroa destructor mite. Although we don’t have the mite in Australia yet, it’s only a matter of time.

“Most strategies to avoid colony collapse focus on removing mites, but if the viruses are actually the main culprits that are causing colony death, I wondered if there was a way to specifically reduce virus levels in bees,” said molecular geneticist, Dr Emily Remnant.

Immunising bees with a symbiotic bacterium that is found in almost half of all insects, Wolbachia pipientis, may work to stave off the devastating impacts of the viruses.

“The bacteria have been effective in providing virus resistance in flies and prevents mosquitoes transmitting viruses like Dengue fever or Zika virus, but this is the first attempt at trialling the bacteria with bees.

“My lab work involves injecting honey bee eggs with the bacteria and rearing the eggs to the pupal stage. I then inject the bee pupae with the viruses and compare the level of viruses in bees that are positive for my immunising bacteria, to bees that do not have the bacteria present. To make comparisons, I extract RNA from the bees and use a quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) method,” Dr Remnant said.

The delicate process of injecting a honey bee egg

Injecting honey bee eggs is not as simple as it sounds.

“I need to use highly specialised equipment, including a pressurised micro-injector and capillary needle puller.”  

Emily is currently in Otago learning to use the equipment. She will be one of a handful of Australian scientists with the specialised training to perform the procedure with this apparatus.

“The financial prize from the generous awards will allow me to purchase these specialised micro-injectors, beekeeping equipment that will enable me to easily harvest newly laid honey bee eggs, and some laboratory reagents and enzymes to perform all the required tests and validations,” she said.

Emily’s work is vital for the horticultural and agricultural industries in Australia, and around the world.

“Preventative measures to avoid colony deaths could be worth up to $6 billion to fruit and vegetable production across Australia,” said Emily.