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Beetles, other bugs could yield biotech revolutions

LadybugCould beetles, butterflies and other bugs yield the next generation of antibiotics and biotech enzymes? That’s what a new German research programme aims to find out.

The “Insect Biotechnology” programme is a joint effort of the Justus-Leibig-University Giessen and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

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

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 hope to exploit this diversity to develop and test new medicines, new methods of pest control, new industrial enzymes and even bionic systems.

The new bioresources project group aim 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.

Researcher Andreas Vilcinskas and his team have their sights 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 — for example, 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. 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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