Natural Products for Biotechnology

Insects have ingenious survival strategies. The researchers of the Fraunhofer IME project group Bioresources want to make it possible to use these talents in bioeconomy. They're investigating interesting insects such as ladybugs, aphids and burying beetles.

Natural Products for Biotechnology

Insects have ingenious survival strategies. The researchers of the Fraunhofer IME project group Bioresources want to make it possible to use these talents in bioeconomy. They're investigating interesting insects such as ladybugs, aphids and burying beetles.

Hunting Treasure in the Insect Kingdom

Burying beetles are capable of miraculous biological feats.
© Photo Fraunhofer IME, Piotr Banczerowsk

Burying beetles are capable of miraculous biological feats.

"Learning from insects means learning to prevail." Professor Andreas Vilcinskas has been an influential figure in the research field of Insect Biotechnology.
© Photo Fraunhofer IME, Piotr Banczerowski

"Learning from insects means learning to prevail." Professor Andreas Vilcinskas is an influential figure in the research field of Insect Biotechnology.

When Philipp Heise needs new burying beetles for his research, he simply goes into the forest, buries several yoghurt cups and leaves a small piece of carrion on them. The smell of decay attracts burying beetles who want to preserve the meat as provisions for their young. As soon as a beetle begins to embalm the carrion with its saliva, it falls into the cup and ultimately lands in the laboratory of the Fraunhofer project group Bioresources in Gießen, Germany.

Here the burying beetle, a member of the genus Nicrophorus, is in the best of company with other insects. All are gifted with unusual abilities and are therefore predestined as the subjects of research in the field of Insect Biotechnology, an innovative research area founded by Professor Dr. Andreas Vilcinskas. Vilcinskas is Professor of Applied Entomology at Giessen University and head of the Fraunhofer Bioresources project group, part of the LOEWE Center for Insect Biotechnology and Bioresources. Vilcinskas leads the Center, which he established with the help of the German state of Hesse's research support program LOEWE.

"The close connection to the university lets us leverage the academic network and develop products at Fraunhofer that we can then bring to market together with industry," Vilcinskas points out. Currently the approximately 85 employees working in the project group are still distributed across five different sites. In two years they'll be able to move into the new research building currently under construction in Gießen.

Fraunhofer IME - Natural products for biotechnology

The search for new antibiotics

Um hocheffiziente PERC-Solarzellen in Serie herzustellen, entwickelten Dr. Jan Nekarda und Dr.-Ing.Ralf Preu (v.l.n.r.) den Laser Fired Contact-Prozess.
© Photo Fraunhofer IME, Piotr Banczerowski

Doctoral candidate Phillip Heise isolates and cultivates bacteria from the intestines of the burying beetle in a laminar flow cabinet.

In the search for new antibiotics, Philipp Heise uses Petri dishes to cultivate micro-organisms that he has isolated from the intestines of the burying beetle.
© Photo Foto Fraunhofer IME, Piotr Banczerowski

In the search for new antibiotics, Philipp Heise uses Petri dishes to cultivate micro-organisms that he has isolated from the intestines of the burying beetle.

Jens Grotmann tests the effectiveness of natural material extracts on aphids.
© Photo Fraunhofer IME, Piotr Banczerowsk

Jens Grotmann tests the effectiveness of natural material extracts on aphids.

Philipp Heise chose to study the burying beetle because of its ability to perform miraculous biological feats. Two centimeters long, the orange and black-striped beetle possesses special preservatives it uses to protect for example an entire dead mouse from decay. The beetle can also use its digestive juices to liquefy the mummified mouse cadaver as food for its young. "The secretions produced by the beetle are made by bacteria and fungus in its intestines," Heise has determined. The doctoral candidate has already been able to identify over 250 such microorganisms, approximately 100 of which can also be cultivated.

One of these microorganisms is the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica, which is capable of breaking down the cadaverine that is responsible for the foul smell of decay. "The yeast or enzymes taken from it could be used in animal cadaver disposal facilities in order to reduce unpleasant odors," says Heise.

The most important objective of the project is however the search for antibiotics effective against multi-resistant hospital germs. Here the Frankfurter branch of the French pharmaceuticals company Sanofi tests the extracts from the microorganisms Philipp Heise isolates in high-throughput procedures.

Sanofi is an important partner to Andreas Vilcinskas. When the company wanted to close down its research into natural materials and do away with its microbiological reference stocks, Vilcinskas came up with an innovative idea: Fraunhofer would take over the unique natural library and bring together various partners to use it for a variety of different applications. When it came to searching for new crop protection agents, Vilcinskas brought the American corporation Dow AgroSciences on board.

Jens Grotmann supervises the experiments of the collaborative project with Dow, in which the extracts from the Sanofi reference stocks are tested for effectiveness against aphids. Here the technician plants radishes in broad test tubes on a jellylike culture medium. As soon as the radishes have reached several centimeters in size, he drips an extract on them, places aphids on them and puts the test tubes in a climate cabinet, where they continue to grow under controlled conditions. In the days that follow Jens Grotmann observes how the aphids react to the extract. If he finds interesting reactions, the corresponding research is continued at Dow in the USA.

The future potentials of yellow biotechnology

Andreas Vilcinskas is a veritable fountain of ideas when he talks about the potentials of Insect Biotechnology. He regards the field of research as a new branch, in addition to red, green and white biotechnology. Accordingly, he coined the term "yellow biotechnology", alluding to the yellow color of hemolymph or insect blood. "I'm convinced that nature has already invented the best antibiotics. We simply have to find them," says the scientist.

One of the first and most exciting research subjects of the biotechnologists at the LOEWE Center is the Asian ladybug Harmonia axyridis, which for years has been spreading through Europe and is gradually replacing native ladybug species. This makes it an interesting candidate for research: Looking for the secret to the Asian ladybug's success, Vilcinskas' team discovered an anti-microbially effective substance in the beetle's hemolymph. The substance is referred to as harmonin, named after the ladybug's genus. It was produced synthetically in order to test its effectiveness on human pathogens. In his doctoral thesis, Tobias Gegner is now explaining the metabolic pathway of the harmonin.

The substance has already demonstrated its efficacy against a variety of pathogens in laboratory testing. "Working together with the Paul-Ehrlich Institut (PEI) in Frankfurt, we're investigating whether or not harmonin could be suitable as a basis for the development of a medication against leishmaniosis," Vilcinskas reports. "This illness, carried by sandflies, is responsible for about two million infections annually and is spreading northward from the tropics due to global warming."