Max Planck Research Group Insect Symbiosis


Insects are the most abundant and diverse animal class on earth, and they are associated with an amazing variety of symbiotic microorganisms. In fact, mutualistic bacteria probably constitute a key factor for the enormous success of insects in adapting to novel environments and food sources. Several insect taxa completely depend on their mutualistic bacteria for successful growth and reproduction, but the nutrients that are provided by the bacteria have only been elucidated in a few cases by physiological and/or genomic studies. Furthermore, little is known about the contribution of insect symbionts to the detoxification of plant secondary metabolites or the defense against pathogens, parasitoids, or predators.

In the Insect Symbiosis Research Group, we are interested in the evolutionary and chemical ecology of symbioses between insects and bacteria. Specifically, we use a range of model systems to study (i) the diversity of ecological functions that bacterial symbionts can confer to their insect hosts (e.g. nutritional supplementation, detoxification, defense), (ii) the molecular and chemical factors that mediate establishment and maintenance of symbiotic interactions and ensure specificity, (iii) the evolutionary history of the associations, and (iv) the consequences of the symbiotic lifestyle for both hosts and symbionts.

Currently, we are working on insects from three different orders:

Beewolves (Philanthus spp., Hymenoptera: Crabronidae), a group of solitary digger wasps, cultivate Streptomyces bacteria that protect the wasp offspring against fungal infestation in the underground brood cells by producing a cocktail of antibiotics on the larval cocoon. We are interested in the chemicals involved in the interactions between the two symbiotic organisms and the genomic basis for the antibiotic production.

Firebugs and cotton stainers (Pyrrhocoris apterus and Dysdercus fasciatus, Hemiptera: Pyrrhocoridae) harbor a community of Actinobacteria (Coriobacterium glomerans and Gordonibacter sp.), Firmicutes (Clostridium sp. and Lactococcus lactis) and Proteobacteria in a specific portion of the mid-gut. Especially the actinobacterial symbionts are important for successful growth and reproduction of the bugs, and we are currently trying to elucidate the individual symbiont contributions towards nutrition and detoxification and reconstruct the evolutionary history of the multipartite association.

Beetles (Coleoptera) are associated with a diverse array of microbial symbionts that can confer a variety of functional benefits to the host. We are using darkling beetles (Lagria hirta, Lagriidae), pine weevils (Hylobius abietis, Curculionidae), ambrosia beetles (Xyleborini, Curculionidae), and burying beetles (Nicrophorus vespilloides, Silphidae) as model systems to investigate the role of bacterial symbionts in nutrition, detoxification, and defense.


Dr. Martin Kaltenpoth

Group Leader:

Dr. Martin Kaltenpoth
+49 (0) 3641 57 1800

Lab News



Eric Tang joins the lab as a PhD student. He will be working on the molecular basis of partner choice in the beewolf-Streptomyces symbiosis. Welcome, Eric!





Sabrina Koehler successfully defended her PhD thesis. Congratulations, Dr. Sabrina!!!





03.12.2012  Peter Biedermann receives Dr. Lutz Zwillenberg Prize
The University of Bern, Switzerland, awarded Peter Biedermann, postdoc in the Insect Symbiosis Group, the Dr. Lutz Zwillenberg Prize for his outstanding dissertation on the "Evolution of Cooperation in Ambrosia Beetles". Congratulations, Peter!

Max Planck Research

The science magazine of the Max Planck Society published an article about the Research Group Insect Symbiosis (in German only).





Sophie Seng starts in the group as a current practical and prospective Bachelors student. She will join Laura in working on the symbionts of Lagria hirta. Welcome, Sophie! 




Peter Biedermann joins the group as a postdoc, to work on the microbial symbionts associated with ambrosia beetles. Welcome, Peter! 




Eugen Bauer starts in the group as a current practical and prospective Masters student. He's interested in the transcriptomics of the cotton stainer gut and its associated microbiota. Welcome, Eugen! 




Aileen Berasategui joins the group once again, this time as a PhD student (in co-supervision with Axel Schmidt and Jonathan Gershenzon). Welcome back, Aileen!




Laura Flórez from Colombia joins the group as a PhD student. Welcome back, Laura! 




Tobias Engl joins the group as a postdoc. Welcome, Tobi! 




Wolfgang Fabig joins the group as a Masters student. Welcome back, Wolfgang!