New insights into the superfood of the honeybee
Royal jelly is widely believed to have health benefits, although the medical evidence is scarce. One thing the substance certainly does is promote caste development in honeybees, causing genetically identical larvae to develop differently. All bee larvae eat royal jelly secreted by worker bees for the first few days of life, but those picked out to be queens continue to feed on it until they pupate and beyond, whereas those that will become workers switch to honey and pollen. Biologists believe molecular signals in royal jelly drive larval bees to develop into queens, but the details of that signaling, including which molecule is most important and how it is recognized, were unclear.
Questions along that line triggered Alba Hykollari and Katharina Paschinger, from the Molecular Glycobiology group at the Department of Chemistry, to revisit royal jelly. The results obtained after liquid chromatography and mass spectrometric analysis were surprising, since the glycosylation (a post translational modification of proteins) was more complicated and fascinating than expected from an insect. In this in-depth study around 100 different structures could be detected, especially complex and hybrid multiantennary N-glycans with fucose, sulfate, glucuronic acid and phosphoethanolamine. The recognition of phosphoethanolamine by a human immunoprotein has potential for anti-inflammatory effects on human health whereas the presence of fucoses can trigger allergic reactions.
Knowing these structures could help other scientists to understand the activity of glycosylated proteins in royal jelly and how they designate larval bees as future queens. The study was recently published in Molecular and Cellular Proteomics (MCP) and featured in ASBMB Today.