20 May 2020

Insects, the new experimental animals of gastrointestinal research

Experimental animals

Flour beetles are the new experimental animals in a study of how parasites affect gut bacteria. Experiments on insects are both cheap and fast, according to a University of Copenhagen researcher.

Photo of a black flour beetle
Photo: Getty Images

Insects are 21st century superstars when it comes to sustainably sourced protein for human and animal consumption. Now, they’ve ratcheted their hero status up a notch with another vital purpose.

Creepy crawlies can be used to study how parasites affect the composition of gut bacteria, which greatly influence both animal and human health.

Besides shedding light on how to promote the growth of heathy gut bacteria, using insects also allows for a reduction in the number of mice that would otherwise live and die via animal experimentation.

This is the conclusion of a new study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, headed by Brian Lund Fredensborg, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences (PLEN).

Along with two departmental colleagues and researchers from the Danish National Serum Institute (SSI), Brian Lund Fredensborg investigated the role of parasites in the composition and diversity of gut bacteria using flour beetles.

"Using beetles allows us to quickly demonstrate how gut bacteria change during the course of a parasitic infection," he says of the study, which is the first ever to experiment on how parasites affect gut flora — using insects.

Easy, quick and cheap

According to Fredensborg, the use of insects to investigate how parasites affect intestinal flora has a number of benefits:

"It is easy to measure and control what insects eat, as well as their life-long living environments — the factors that determine which bacteria will thrive in their guts." 

Insects grow very quickly, making it easier to perform experiments that would ordinarily take much longer to accomplish. Furthermore, it is cheaper to conduct experiments using beetles than larger experimental animals, which require more space and care, explains Brian Lund Fredensborg.

Beetles contribute new knowledge about gut health

The composition of bacteria in our guts directly affects our health. While insect and human bacteria are not the same, beetles are nonetheless able to contribute new knowledge about factors that influence bacterial balance in the gut.

"As such, we expect that experiments on insects may lead to the development of new pharmaceuticals or supplements that contribute to a healthy intestinal system in humans and animals", concludes Brian Fredensborg.