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Inspiring insects: using them to break ground

Drosophila melanogaster, commonly called the fruit fly, is an indispensable species in scientific research.
Credit: Flickr (Hannah Davis)
Fruit fly
  • Fruit fly
  • Cockroache
  • Atta ants
  • Entomophagy
Inspiring insects: using them to break ground

Insects, through their numbers and their incredible adaptability, are a fabulous source of inspiration. As their decline makes itself felt more and more, we should bear in mind the ways in which we benefit from their services. You may be surprised to learn that insects offer us a lot more than honey, wax and silk…

Model organisms and Nobel Prizes

No doubt you’re familiar with fruit flies. These tiny insects often found hanging around our bananas have been the recipients of no fewer than six Nobel Prizes! Drosophila melanogaster has been a model species in scientific research for over 100 years, thanks to features especially well adapted to laboratory experiments: it’s inexpensive and easy to raise, has a speedy life cycle, and tons of offspring. Moreover, its genetic code was fully described in 2000 – and turns out to be quite similar to our own! That resemblance allows for spectacular research breakthroughs that apply to humans. Its most recent Nobel Prize, in 2017, was awarded for studies focusing on circadian rhythms in living organisms.

To the rescue

Technological advances are paving the way for new possibilities in insect use. For example, rescue operations in towns where buildings have collapsed following an earthquake present special challenges. The cockroach, that hardy, resilient little insect with astounding motor skills, is proving to be the new St. Bernard dog of our urban catastrophes. Armed with remote-operated microcontrollers, they can make their way to what would be unmanageable for a human being and send back signals that render it possible to sketch a portrait of the accident. When a microphone is attached, the sounds of trapped people can be received, enabling searchers to pinpoint their location and undertake the potentially best rescue effort.

An antibiotic derived from ants

Resistance to antibiotics is a major and worrying medical issue. Atta ants, the ones that cut and transport pieces of leaves to their nests to grow a fungus, face serious challenges when fungal infections enter the picture. Fungal pathogens can take up residence in their nests and infect the entire colony. Which is why these ants have developed a powerful defense mechanism: an association with bacteria that lodge in their glands and that produce an antibiotic against pathogens. The molecule responsible bears the name selvamicin and is now a patented antibiotic for treating infections caused by Candida albicans, a fungus that affects humans.

In our plates

It is now well known that insects offer high nutritional value and ensure global food security by constituting foods of choice for a great many human beings. Even though the West is far from being the first to sink its teeth into insects, breeding farms and insect-based products are enjoying a boom right now. And with good reasons: insect production needs little in the way of space, requires much less water, emits minimal greenhouse gas and delivers a foodstuff with unrivaled protein content. Another advantage? The possibility of raising insects on our food waste and even using their own waste to fertilize our plants. When we talk about a zero-waste lifestyle, insects are the champs!

In addition to their indispensable roles in nature, we benefit from the services of insects in ways we never would have suspected. Maybe it’s time to accept their place in our day-to-day lives and to recognize that it’s not just the disappearance of bees we have to worry about…

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