Natural Products for Biotechnology


Nature – The world’s largest medicine cabinet. People have known about nature’s healing powers for thousands of years. But one corner of this natural pharmacy still remains unexplored: Insects. With around one million different species, insects are the most successful life form on earth, only because they can adapt to such extreme habitats. Scientists are now trying take advantage of these unusual abilities. Fraunhofer researchers are among the world leaders in this field. We work to discover and develop active ingredients from microbes, marine organisms, insects and plants. We extract them and develop them further. Professor Andreas Vilcinskas leads the Bioresources project group. I started collecting butterflies when I was twelve. I was most fascinated by moths. There are ten times more varieties of moths than of butterflies. Capturing this diversity was what interested me most. Fraunhofer researchers are now working to harness this insect biodiversity for a wide variety of applications. It´s an incredible library of active ingredients. The question is: How can we use this to our benefit? Scientist are looking to insects in particular in the field of medicine. For example in the treatment of wounds or infections. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME are breeding the world’s best bio-surgeons: Medicinal maggots. The fascinating thing is, they clean the wound. They keep things from getting worse. Studies have shown that infected wounds heal up to eight times faster when treated by medicinal maggots. The larvae´s secretions dissolve dead tissue, including bacteria. The highly complex mixture of forty-seven antimicrobial peptides cleans wounds much better than a scalpel can. We can learn a lot from nature. We just have to select the right insects and then you can do fascinating things. Professor Rainer Fischer headed the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME until the end of 2016. He knows how immensely important natural substances are We’re particularly involved in biotechnology in order to use nature’s tools and possibilities. after all nature makes the best molecules The researchers often find the carriers of new active ingredients right outside their front door. For example in the soil of the forest: Here we find an insect that survives thanks to its sophisticated arsenal of chemical compounds. This uniquely skilled insect is the burying beetle. Its antennae can detect the smell of carrion several kilometers away. If it finds a dead mouse, for example, it preserves it to feed it to its larvae later. What we’re interested in is this amazing ability to preserve carrion well enough to keep it from rotting further. This involves a wide variety of substances; among other things we’re looking for new antibiotics. And of course preservatives for the food industry. Even more interesting for the Fraunhofer researchers is what comes next. After the female has deposited her eggs in the carrion, the burying beetle liquefies the cadaver so that it can be used to nourish its larvae. Once again it uses a unique secretion which could be used to make biofuel from organic waste. We could find applications for eliminating slaughterhouse waste, processing food waste and so on. In the search for new antibiotics the Fraunhofer researchers are pinning their hopes on the Asian ladybug, which has spread around the world and is supplanting native species. One reason appears to be its powerful immune system. The scientists compared its blood, or hemolymph, with that of other species and detected an unusual active substance. In this comparative analysis we came across a molecule in the hemolymph of the Asian ladybug that is missing in the others: Harmonin. Extracting harmonin doesn’t mean drawing blood from the ladybug. When threatened the beetle shows reflex bleeding. it excretes small amounts of its bitter-tasting hemolymph as a defensive tactic. Predators give up on the inedible insect. The researchers make use of this behavior. Prof. Vilcinskas discovers parasites in the ladybug’s blood – the insect should already be long dead. The fact that it’s not is proof of the beetle’s fantastic immune system – thanks to the substance harmonin. Its properties are so outstanding that we can use it as basis for new medication against malaria or neglected tropical diseases. In its search for new active ingredients from nature Fraunhofer also works with partners from industry, for example with the pharmaceuticals company Sanofi. Fraunhofer and Sanofi are working together closely to identify new active ingredients in specific therapeutic areas with new strategies. With one million species of insects, the majority of their secrets remains to be investigated. The Fraunhofer scientists are working to decipher them and use them for mankind. What I find most exciting when developing these innovative solutions is the diversity, the proximity to application, to industry and to the consumer and really taking the solutions all the way to the actual application. There’s certainly more to learn from insects. The researchers of the Fraunhofer IME already see insects as more than just creeping crawlies, but rather as what they really are: Nature’s cleverest survivalists.

One Comment

  1. Nashu seddiqui said:

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    January 17, 2019
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