Learning from Insects

© Shem Compion

Unseen and unheard, insects are all around us. And with more than a million different species, each one perfectly adapted to its environment, no other form of animal life comes close to matching insects for diversity. Scientists now want to exploit this diversity to develop and test new medicines, new methods of pest control, new industrial enzymes and even bionic systems.

In search of this goal, the Justus-Leibig-University Giessen and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft will build and expand a collaborative "Insect Biotechnology" research program supported by the Land of Hessen, which is providing four Mio Euros from its research fund, LOEWE (Initiative for the Development of Scientific and Economic Excellence).

"Up to now, there has been no facility that systematically develops and economically benefits from the potential of insect biotechnology", explains Prof. Ulrich Buller, senior vice president for research planning at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft" in Munich, Germany. Therefore, we anticipate gaining a truly unique position within Europe."

The stated goal of the Bioresources project group is to identify new enzymes and metabolites in domestic insects that can be used in medicine, pest control and industrial biotechnology. For example, an array of previously unknown substances has been discovered by studying how insects successfully defend themselves against microbes, and the Insect Biotechnology project group will soon embark on research that will use these substances to develop new antibiotics.

"The strategic alliance between these two partners is fostering synergy in the fields of medicine, nutrition and the environment," says Hessian minister for science and the arts Eva Kühne-Hörmann comfirms, "Not to mention the fact that this structural development is a scientific and economic boon to central Hesse".

The establishment of a new Fraunhofer facility together with the university is planned in the medium-term," adds Prof. Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee, first vice president of JLU. "Now we can work intensively from a multifaceted perspective on a totally new kind of field of research, which will allow us to create the foundations for the targeted long-term presence of Fraunhofer in Gießen.

We hope to gain the state's long-term commitment to these structural development perspectives, which are setting the trend for all life sciences departments at our university."

The Fraunhofer project group will initially be housed at the Technology and Innovation Center (TIC) Giessen, as a satellite office of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME which has facilities in both Aachen (molecular biology) and Schmallenberg (applied ecology).

Prof. Vilcinskas and his team have their sights set on three specific topics: the development and testing of new drugs, innovative strategies in pest control and integrated risk management for food and feed. The third of these topics involves the use of certain insect species (e.g. rice flour beetles) as tools to develop highly sensitive test systems that can be used in the future to monitor the quality and safety of food on an affordable and reliable basis.

The researchers are also focusing on insects with powerful immune systems, such as rat tail maggots. These larvae from certain hover flies are the only animals that can survive and thrive in sludge and liquid manure pits, feeding on the microbes there.

Pest control will feature strongly in the research because insects can be major pests in fields and in storage warehouses, but may also hold the secret to controlling other insect populations. It is important to implement pest control without harming beneficial species such as bees, whose pollination activity is required for the propagation of many crops.

Insects also possess enzymes that enable them to exploit otherwise indigestible substances, such as wood, as food. With bundled research competency, it is now possible in Hessen to tap the potential of insects as a resource for new enzymes for use in white biotechnology (another name for industrial biotechnology). For example, researchers will try to develop a way in which butterfly cells could be used in future industrial facilities to produce high-grade raw materials or enzymes.

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