Biotech: New drugs made from insects


Whether on the sidewalk, in the garden or on the way to Kennesaw State University in Georgia – Clint Penick always has a plastic tube as thick as a thumb with a filter and collecting chamber with him to suck in his study objects: ants. He calls himself a myrmecologist, an artificial word for ant researchers, and is one of the pioneers in the young research field of insect biotechnology.

Insect biotechnologists look for active ingredients in hexipods that can be used in medicine, industrial biotechnology or crop protection – similar to natural substances from plants or bacteria. Analogous to red biotechnology, which is dedicated to medicine, and green biotech, which has plants in its sights, entomologists call their work yellow biotechnology. Yellow, because the insects’ body fluid, called the hemolymph, is often yellow.

The hope of finding hidden treasures there is based on the extraordinary success of animals: insects are among the oldest inhabitants of our earth. They have developed a huge arsenal of antibodies and toxins to get rid of their predators – and have continuously optimized them for 400 million years. With an estimated ten million different insect species – of which just a tenth is described – this results in a huge pool. In flies, beetles, ants, wasps and grasshoppers, there is dormant potential for new active ingredients against malaria, cancer or AIDS.

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