An active protein component of royal jelly helps honeybees create new queens. Stanford researchers have identified a similar protein in mammals, which keeps cultured embryonic stem cells pluripotent.
A mammalian protein similar in structure to the active component of honeybee royal jelly — the queen-making goop that helps worker bees raise a new egg-laying diva for the hive — functions as kind of a fountain of youth for mouse embryonic stem cells, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The protein causes the cells to remain pluripotent, meaning they can become any cell in the body, under conditions that would normally trigger them to develop into specialized cells.
The unexpected finding is likely to fan the flames of a millennia-old debate as to the regenerative power of royal jelly. More importantly, the discovery reveals new pathways to pluripotency and suggests novel ways to keep stem cells in a state of suspended animation until needed for future therapies.
“In folklore, royal jelly is kind of like a super-medicine, particularly in Asia and Europe,” said assistant professor of dermatology Kevin Wang, MD, PhD, “but the DNA sequence of royalactin, the active component in the jelly, is unique to honeybees. Now, we’ve identified a structurally similar mammalian protein that can maintain stem cell pluripotency.”
Wang is the senior author of the study, which was published Dec. 4 in Nature Communications . Associate professor of surgery Derrick Wan, MD, is the lead author.
Component of hive hierarchy
Royal jelly is a critical component in the strict hierarchical structure of the honeybee hive. Under normal conditions, a single queen lays fertilized eggs that develop into female worker bees. These worker bees slave away collecting pollen and nectar, building the honeycomb, laying unfertilized eggs and tending to larvae. In contrast, the drones loll about the hive, rousing themselves every so often to meet up with other drones at designated “drone congregation areas” where they hover until a new queen flies by and incites a mating riot.
Eventually, a new queen is needed for the hive when an old queen dies or the hive grows too large and needs to split into two. In this case, the worker bees select a few female larvae to nurture exclusively with royal jelly — a viscous, slightly acidic substance composed of water, proteins and sugars — during their development. All larvae are fed with royal jelly for the first few days after hatching, but worker larvae are quickly switched to a combination of royal jelly, honey and a pollen concoction known as “bee bread.”
Exactly how a royal jelly diet stimulates the formation of a large, fertile queen rather than a lowly worker bee has remained elusive. But humans quickly decided that what’s good for the queen must be good for them. Although royal jelly has been suggested to have effects on cholesterol levels, blood pressure, nervous system and hormonal activity, it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for medicinal use.