How Insects Have Catalysed Biotech Development

How Insects Have Catalysed Biotech Development

The covid-19 vaccine, flower pollination, beer fermentation, antimicrobial peptides, feed additives, silk production, organic waste disposal. Insects play an irreplicable role in more areas than you may realise.

Whether it’s accelerating the rate of biotech research or facilitating a more circular economy, these small creatures have been the instigator of huge breakthroughs in science. Their physiological nature makes them perfect vessels for rapid innovation, reliable solutions, and much more.

Today, scientists continue to harness insects in new ways to improve scientific processes and develop solutions to benefit our society.

Why insects are used in research

Insects are not just well-suited to scientific innovation; their natural qualities have even improved scientific processes compared to other approaches. Here are a few ways in which insects support innovation:

Broad diversity

Insects may be small, but they have surprisingly complex and hugely varied genetics.

They are the most diverse organisms in the world, with around 1 million known species making up about 90% of the world’s species. Insects can be found in almost all environments on the planet and the diverse biological traits of the different groups – the Diptera group, a flying species; the Coleoptera group, land and aquatic beetles; and the Lepidoptera group, including butterflies and moths, to name only a few – enable an equally diverse range of scientific studies.

Human extrapolation

For over a century, Drosophilia Melanogaster (the common fruit fly) has often been used in medicine and biotechnology as a model organism. This fly has become the main invertebrate model used to study developmental genetics. The main benefits of using D. melanogaster are that they have a short life cycle, they need minimal cultivation requirements and they are easy to genetically manipulate. If we add to all this the fact that approximately 60% of Drosophila genes are homologous to those of humans, this model organism is ideal to be used as a genetic tool in the research of different human diseases.

For example, they have facilitated numerous advances in the study of cancer.

Fast lifecycles

The reproductive cycle of an insect is optimal for scientific study. It varies slightly between species, but the insect lifecycle is much shorter than the human lifecycle. You can run and replicate tests and get results in just months. Plus, this allows you to study the complete picture of the end-to-end lifecycle.

Small size

Insects’ relatively small size compared to other animals used for study, such as mammals, makes it possible to store or breed them at scale. You could feasibly store tonnes, or millions, of insects in a 1000m2 space.

Environmental conditions

Insects are also native to a variety of conditions. From low humidity to tropical environments, there will be a species that can thrive here, once again making them suitable for a range of locations and scientific use cases.

Natural biology

Finally, insects are a natural medium for experimentation, testing or product development. This means results are more reliable and representative of real-world conditions. It also means use cases can create a sustainable closed cycle. They require fewer resources, such as water, to maintain, and throughout their lifecycle, every part of the body can be used for different purposes. For example, oil can be taken from insect exoskeletons to be used in the production of chitosan.

Processes powered by insects

Because of their diverse and adaptable qualities, insects can be used for so many use cases, products and processes across industries.


One of the first uses that were made of insects was biological control.

Insects and nematodes have been shown to be the most prominent pests of agricultural plants and livestock in the world. They cause billions of dollars in losses to farmers each year due to reduced yields, deteriorated quality and disease.

Chemical pesticides are an important tool for controlling insects and nematodes. However, safer alternatives to chemical pest control have become essential due to the harm pesticides cause to the ecosystem and human health.

The advent of biotechnology in general, and insect biotechnology in particular, is an innovative and natural advance in the fight against insect pests. One of the most important milestones in biological control includes the sterile insect technique (SIT), where males of the species in question are irradiated with gamma rays and X-rays. The sterile males are then released into the wild, breaking the reproductive cycle of the plague.

Another of the most prominent uses of insects in agriculture is their use in pollination. For this purpose, bees, bumblebees, and some species of diptera are being used. This biotic pollination system is natural and sustainable, in addition to increasing the quality of the crop.

Around 15,000 flowering plants, including important crops such as tomatoes and peppers, hide their pollen in bags in their anthers that can only be reached through very small openings. To access this pollen, females of certain bee species, such as bumblebees, have evolved to use a technique known as sonication or “buzz pollination”.


Biotechnology (and other areas of medicine) is a particularly interesting area for the use of insects. Some applications have been around for years, while others have emerged recently.

Protein-based vaccines have long been produced with the help of insects and baculovirus expression. One prominent example is how cells from the Spodoptera moth have helped  to produce vaccines like, Provenge (sipuleucel-T) for prostate cancer (developed by Dendreon Inc, Seattle, WA), Flublok  for influenza (developed by Protein Sciences Inc., Meriden, CT), and Cervarix for cervical cancer (developed by MedImmune, Gaithersburg, MD and GlaxoSmithKline, Rixensart, Bélgica).

Another use case that is more forward-looking is tackling antimicrobial resistance. Antimicrobial peptides developed from insects can be more effective at fighting pathogens that have developed resistance. This will help to combat a serious medical crisis. There is also research being done into including peptides in the diet of livestock and pets.

It’s worth noting that insects have to be of the highest quality if they are to be used in medical applications for humans. That’s why at Cocoon we pay even greater attention to the health of the insects we breed and use.

How we use insects at Cocoon Bioscience

We use the Trichoplusia ni moth in our development of recombinant proteins. What’s unique about our approach is that we use the whole insect. In comparison to using just the mammalian or other non-insect cell, our approach is cheaper, quicker, and easier to scale:

  • Instead of using large and expensive bioreactors, we use the moth’s cocoon as a natural bioreactor
  • By using the whole insect, we can produce proteins from thousands and thousands of cells
  • The physiology of the insects themselves already provides the conditions they need to breed and survive
  • It’s easy to scale and maintain these conditions because of the size of the ‘reactor’ and the larger biomass provided by the whole insect
  • It’s easy to adapt the parameters of the environment and produce different products through simple inoculations

We developed this process after significant R&D. It led us to discover that by inoculating the whole insect, the virus and biology of the insect work harmoniously together. When there is only a cell, you produce only what one cell can produce. You can’t modify it or improve it, which limits the possibility for innovation.

By using the whole insect, your opportunities for innovation are much broader.

The future of insects in biotech

Insects are one of the most innovative and valuable processes in today’s medical R&D.

Their high protein levels can fuel a more sustainable food supply. They are accelerating medical advancement. They enable more sustainable processes in R&D, reducing waste, emissions and resource use compared to other animals like mammals.

Insects can be used for so many applications, and so much of the insect can be used. That’s why there has been huge growth in the number of companies using insects in their research. The more we discover about their immunology and their lifecycles, the more insights we can unlock.

Undoubtedly, insects will be further written into the future of medical innovation in the next few decades.

Explore how we’re using cocoons to accelerate the development of recombinant proteins.