Volatile biomarkers for non-invasive detection of American foulbrood, a threat to honey bee pollination services

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Honey bees provide essential environmental services, pollinating both agricultural and natural ecosystems that are crucial for human health. However, these pollination services are under threat by outbreaks of the bacterial honey bee disease American foulbrood (AFB). Caused by the bacterium, Paenibacillus larvae, AFB kills honey bee larvae, converting the biomass to a foul smelling, spore-laden mass. Due to the bacterium's tough endospores, which are easily spread and extremely persistent, AFB management requires the destruction of infected colonies in many countries. AFB detection remains a significant problem for beekeepers: diagnosis is often slow, relying on beekeepers visually identifying symptoms in the colony and molecular confirmation. Delayed detection can result in large outbreaks during high-density beekeeping pollination events, jeopardising livelihoods and food security. In an effort to improve diagnostics, we investigated volatile compounds associated with AFB-diseased brood in vitro and in beehive air. Using Solid Phase Microextraction and Gas Chromatography Mass-Spectrometry, we identified 40 compounds as volatile biomarkers for AFB infections, including 16 compounds previously unreported in honey bee studies. In the field, we detected half of the biomarkers in situ (in beehive air) and demonstrated their sensitivity and accuracy for diagnosing AFB. The most sensitive volatile biomarker, 2,5-dimethylpyrazine, was exclusively detected in AFB-disease larvae and hives, and was detectable in beehives with <10 AFB-symptomatic larvae. These, to our knowledge, previously undescribed biomarkers are prime candidates to be targeted by a portable sensor device for rapid and non-invasive diagnosis of AFB in beehives.

Original languageEnglish
Article number157123
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022


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