Two years ago, Nancy Moran moved from Yale University to the University of Texas, Austin, along with 120,000 bees. Bees are famous for living in large social groups, but Moran was interested in more than just the hive: She’s delving into the diverse ecosystem of bacteria that evolved along with the bees, a group that contributes to the health of hives and their resilience to infection.
Bees and their microbiota are just one example of symbiosis — a close relationship between two species that typically helps both. Symbiosis can take a variety of forms. Cleaner fish scour dead skin from other fish and gain a meal in the process. The myriad microbes that live within our guts help us digest certain foods.
But much of Moran’s work has focused on a deeper kind of partnership, one involving microbes known as endosymbionts that are passed from their host to its offspring. With her collaborator Paul Baumann, a bacteriologist at the University of California, Davis, Moran uncovered the tightly interwoven nature of these host-microbe relationships. Many pairs have become completely dependent on each other, some even swapping genes. Her research centered largely on aphids, sap-feeding insects that infest plants. The aphids can’t survive without a microbe called Buchnera aphidicola, which lives within the insect and provides it with essential nutrients.
Moran is now doing similar work with bees, and her research could eventually help scientists understand colony collapse disorder, the mysterious plague devastating honeybee populations. Moran hopes an evolutionary biologist’s perspective will also provide important insight into the workings of the human microbiome — the collection of microbes that live on and inside us — which has become a hot topic in human health.
Quanta Magazine spoke with Moran in July at the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution conference in Vienna, where she presented her latest research on bees. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.
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