Background: There is a major paradox in our understanding of honey bee immunity: the high population density in a bee colony implies a high rate of disease transmission among individuals, yet bees are predicted to express only two-thirds as many immunity genes as solitary insects, e.g., mosquito or fruit fly. This suggests that the immune response in bees is subdued in favor of social immunity, yet some specific immune factors are up-regulated in response to infection. To explore the response to infection more broadly, we employ mass spectrometry-based proteomics in a quantitative analysis of honey bee larvae infected with the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae. Newly-eclosed bee larvae, in the second stage of their life cycle, are susceptible to this infection, but become progressively more resistant with age. We used this host-pathogen system to probe not only the role of the immune system in responding to a highly evolved infection, but also what other mechanisms might be employed in response to infection.
Results: Using quantitative proteomics, we compared the hemolymph (insect blood) of five-day old healthy and infected honey bee larvae and found a strong up-regulation of some metabolic enzymes and chaperones, while royal jelly (food) and energy storage proteins were down-regulated. We also observed increased levels of the immune factors prophenoloxidase (proPO), lysozyme and the antimicrobial peptide hymenoptaecin. Furthermore, mass spectrometry evidence suggests that healthy larvae have significant levels of catalytically inactive proPO in the hemolymph that is proteolytically activated upon infection. Phenoloxidase (PO) enzyme activity was undetectable in one or two-day-old larvae and increased dramatically thereafter, paralleling very closely the age-related ability of larvae to resist infection.
Conclusion: We propose a model for the host response to infection where energy stores and metabolic enzymes are regulated in concert with direct defensive measures, such as the massive enhancement of PO activity.