An Interview with Professor Jonathan Snow

Inside the world of honeybee research with Jonathan Snow

Jonathan Snow, Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology at Williams College, received his B.A. from Williams College in 1996, after which he completed his graduate studies at UCSF and his post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School on the effects of transcriptional regulation in immune system development.  He decided to come back to Williams to teach and to continue his research on immune development, using the honeybee as his model.

As one of his seminar students, I was given an opportunity to interview Professor Snow on his research interests and his thoughts on teaching at his alma mater.

October 26, 2010

Joshua: Tell me about the kind of research you did before honeybees.

Professor Snow: My career before honeybees involved understanding the mechanisms of blood cell development in mammalian models, primarily in mice.

J: Was this the focus of your research for doctoral and post-doctoral research?

PS: Yes.  I was a graduate student at UCSF, where I studied the role of specific transcription factors in blood development and autoimmunity.  I did my post-doctoral work at the Children’s Hospital in Boston on the molecular mechanisms by which genes are turned on and off in mammalian blood development.

J: What got you interested in honeybee research?

PS: I wanted a change of direction, which is common for scientists leaving their postdoctoral work to go to more permanent positions.  I had been interested in food production and sustainable agriculture, and I was looking for ways to tie that to the molecular level questions I had been asking.  I randomly enrolled in a beekeeping class with the Essex County Beekeepers’ Association and realized that honeybees might provide the perfect way to join my two interests.  Many of the molecules that I had previously studied in blood development are present in bees as well, specifically those involved in blood cell development and immune function.

It was exciting to me that the science I was working on could be applicable to help an organism in crisis that is really important for agricultural and natural ecosystems.  Switching to honeybee research was also a big opportunity, because it gave me a chance to change to work on something I was really enthusiastic about, and you don’t get many chances to do that.

J: What specific areas are you interested in/are you researching now?

PS: Right now I’m looking at the honeybee gut as an immune organ.  This actually goes back to some of my first research interests in immune cells involved in resisting pathogens in the gut.  In that work we were looking at damage to the gut caused by the immune system in the gut reacting inappropriately in autoimmunity. As the gut represents an important immune barrier, this destruction can have serious consequences for health.

J: Why is the gut such an important barrier?

PS: Bees are social insects that are in constant contact, sharing and passing food among other things, and in this way they are very much like humans.  A lot of pathogens can be quickly shared in a social group through this behavior and gut exposure.

J: There are many hypotheses that explain Colony Collapse Disorder.  What is your take?

PS: Yes, there are lots of hypotheses, and I think jury is still out on the cause or causes.  However, I think it is likely a combination of habitat loss, changes in beekeeping practices, chemical exposure to environmental toxins, and emerging pathogens.   Once bee hives are weakened through some combination of environmental stresses, pathogens can cause hive collapse.  An understanding of how bees fight pathogens will be crucial to our response to Colony Collapse.

Even winter weather puts stress on hives.  Overwintering is difficult for honeybees in colder climates, as it closes bees inside the hive for longer periods of time and there are few nectar sources during this part of the year.  If the hive cannot quickly gather food and produce larvae in the spring, there can be major consequences. This nutritional stress coupled with a long incubation time stuck in the hive can lead to pathogen buildup further eroding hive health and potentially leading to its destruction.

J: What is the honeybee’s food source during the winter?

PS: It’s the honey they make!  Honeybees take nectar back to the hive, regurgitate it and put the nectar into wax combs.  They then manually evaporate the nectar until it is about 17% water, the rest being sugar from flower nectar.  It’s a very good storage method for sugar: it’s so dry that microorganisms can’t live in it.  It’s analogous to salting meat in order to preserve it.  The nectar is essentially dried out.  In addition to honey, pollen is also stored in the combs as a protein and fat source.  I actually think pollen tastes good!  A very strong taste.

J: Anything else about bees that captures your imagination?

PS: Honeybees together create what is called a superorganism: the hive shares traits that we would normally associate with organisms.  Honeybees work together and the level of organization and efficiency within the superorganism is amazing.  It reminds me of the complex feedback mechanisms in mammalian bodies.  The hive is carefully controlled, but there is no one bee that makes decisions.  They all reach a rough consensus, even though all have genetically diverse ’opinions’.  For example, the majority of bees must agree when the hive will stop rearing larvae for the winter.

J: Any thoughts as to why bees are so social and hierarchical?  Is there an evolutionary answer to this?

PS: I’ve read that superorganisms like bees and ants only represent about 2% of all insect species but about 70% of insect biomass on Earth.  Bees are very good at what they do.  The benefits of social organization are easier survival and perhaps the monopolization of food sources.  A whole hive of bees can outcompete other insects for food sources.

J: You’ve switched gears a little to teach at Williams.  What inspired you to come back?

PS: I had a really good experience in the Williams College Biology Department – seeing good teachers in action at the front of the class made me think that it would be really fun to stand up there and teach as well.  Being able to come back to teach for the alma mater for a few years seemed like a great opportunity.  It’s been a lot of fun!