Max Planck Research Group Insect Symbiosis

Martin Kaltenpoth is now the head of the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at the Institute of Zoology, University of Mainz. Please visit the new website here:

Several of our projects are still running at the MPI-CE. Please consult the "Group Members" page for more details.


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

Lab News



Our paper on the evolutionary history of the firebug gut microbiota has been published by The ISME Journal. For more detailed information, please refer to our press release on "Microbe-mediated adaptation to a novel diet - Symbiotic bacteria enabled bugs to feed on plant seeds and promoted species diversity".


Sailendharan Sudakaran successfully defended his PhD thesis. Congratulations, Dr. Sailen!!!





Our review on "Defensive symbioses of animals with prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganisms" has been published online by Natural Product Reports, and the beewolf made it to the cover. The paper is freely available online.





With their contribution on the bacterial symbionts of Oryzaephilus surinamensis, Carla, Nadia, and Theresa win the regional competition of "Jugend forscht" in Jena as well as a special price awarded by the Rotary Club Jena Ernst Abbe. Congratulations!!!



Melissa Whitaker joins the group as a visiting scientist working on the bacterial gut communities of lycaenid butterflies. Welcome, Melissa!






Paul Gaube joins the group as a new Master student to work on the transmission route of Burkholderia symbionts in Lagria beetles. Welcome, Paul!





Hassan Salem successfully defended his PhD thesis. Congratulations, Dr. Hassan!!!




Shantanu Shukla joins the group as a postdoc to work on the functional characterization of microbial symbionts in burying beetles. Welcome, Shantanu!





Thomas Ogao Onchuru joins the lab as a PhD student. He will be working on the host and symbiont contributions towards parasite resistance in cotton stainer bugs. Welcome back, Thomas!




April 14: Paper on partner choice and fidelity in the beewolf symbiosis published in PNAS

Our co-phylogenetic analysis of beewolves and their symbionts and the experimental evidence for partner choice through targeted manipulation of the symbiosis has been published in PNAS.


Laura Flórez receives awards for the best talk at both the IMPRS symposium and the MiCom 2014

Laura Flórez received the IMPRS Travel Award for the best talk during the annual IMPRS symposium this February, and the MiCom 2014 award for the best talk during the 4th International Student Conference on Microbial Communication (MiCom 2014), which was held in Jena from March 31 - April 3, 2014. She gave a talk on "Bacteria-mediated egg protection? Transmission and defensive function of symbiotic bacteria in lagriid beetles". Congratulations, Laura!


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!