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Sadd awarded $362,000 NIH grant to study bee gut bacteria

Bees climbing on a flower

Image from Ben Sadd

Man with a backpack standing in front of mist-covered foliage

Ben Sadd

Health stores are full of probiotics marketed to boost our good gut bacteria. But these same bacteria can be knocked out as a side-effect of antibiotic treatment targeting infection. With the aim of understanding what keeps our beneficial gut bacteria healthy, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Illinois State University’s Ben Sadd a grant of more than $362,000 to explore the gut bacteria of bumble bees.

As an assistant professor of infectious disease ecology, Sadd leads a lab that researches gut bacteria in bees, which help the bees detoxify chemicals, fight pathogens, and digest food. “Like humans, bees are surrounded by bacteria, and the immune system of the bees is a likely gatekeeper,” said Sadd, who joined Illinois State in 2013 after working at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “The grant will allow us to investigate how the immune system of bumble bees determines which bacteria reside in their gut, and what the consequences are for the health of the bumble bees.”

While humans have thousands of types of bacteria located in the gut, bumble bees usually have around 10, noted Sadd, which makes it easier to understand interactions between the bacteria and the bee’s built-in innate immune system. “Bumble bees share with humans an effective, innate immune system to fight disease and control microbes, but they do not have the acquired immune system that we have,” he said. Sadd’s team, comprised of both undergraduate and graduate student researchers, will explore how pathogen infections disrupt gut health, and how bees can rebound to a healthy state.

With his research supported by more than $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Institutes of Health, Sadd has published more than 40 peer-reviewed publications in international scientific journals, such as the Evolution, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, and the Journal of Applied Ecology. He received the Research Initiative Award from Illinois State University in 2018.

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