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Manduca sexta (Tobacco hornworm)

Manduca sexta, commonly known as the tobacco hornworm, is a widely used model organism in biological research, particularly in studies of insect immunology and as a model for in vivo imaging. Its large size, ease of rearing in laboratory conditions, and well-characterized life cycle make it an ideal subject for experiments, allowing researchers to gain insights into broader biological processes.

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© Anton Windfelder

Manduca sexta: A Model Organism for Imaging and Immunology

Manduca sexta, commonly known as the Tobacco Hornworm, is a powerful model for biological research. Native to the Americas, it is particularly noted for its sizeable larval stage, which often feeds on tobacco and tomato plants. Beyond its agricultural impact, Manduca sexta has become a crucial model organism in the fields of imaging and immunology, providing valuable insights due to its unique biological characteristics.

Life Cycle and Morphology:

M. sexta exhibits a complete metamorphosis cycle, encompassing egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and adult stages. The caterpillar stage is especially notable for its striking appearance, marked by a distinctive horn and vivid striping. In the adult stage, the moth displays mottled brownish-gray wings, although it's less renowned for its aesthetics than for its reproductive role.

Eggs from manduca sexta
© Marcel Kaarow



3-5 days

© Marcel Kaarow


caterpillar (L5)

6-8 days

Caterpillars of manduca sexta
© Marcel Kaarow


caterpillar (L1)

3-4 days

© Anton Windfelder



20-90 days

© Marcel Kaarow


caterpillar (L4)

5-6 days

Manduca moth
© Anton Windfelder



10-15 days

Distribution of Manduca sexta
© Anton Windfelder

Native to the Americas

Anker 1
Anker 2
Anker 3

Feeding Behavior:

As larvae, M. sexta caterpillars are known for their voracious appetite, primarily feeding on members of the Solanaceae family, like tobacco and tomato. This feeding habit is critical in the context of agricultural pest management.


Model Organism for Imaging:

The tobacco hornworm stands out as an exemplary insect model organism for preclinical research, offering numerous benefits, including a fully mapped genome, methylome, and the availability of specific monoclonal antibodies. Its large larval size, often exceeding ten and sometimes 20 grams, makes it particularly suitable for a range of experiments in fields such as biochemistry, developmental biology, immunology, epigenetics, morphology, neurobiology, and gut physiology. A key aspect of its utility stems from the high degree of evolutionary conservation between the M. sexta and human gut, especially in terms of enteric epithelial structures and innate immunity.


Leveraging these advantages, M. sexta has been established as a non-vertebrate model for studying gut inflammation, in line with the 3R principles. This model has been instrumental in employing medical imaging modalities such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET). These imaging techniques take advantage of the larva's large size for image-guided high-throughput screening. Such screenings encompass a wide range of research areas, including the investigation of new effectors and inhibitors of gut inflammation, the impact of pesticides and antibiotics, host-pathogen interactions, and the development of new contrast agents for medical imaging purposes. This research has broader implications by offering a more ethical and economical alternative to murine models.


Model Organism for Immunology:

In immunology, Manduca serves as a model for understanding the innate immune response. The simplicity yet effectiveness of its immune system makes it an excellent subject for studying the mechanisms of pathogen recognition, immune signaling pathways, and responses to infections. The larval hemolymph (analogous to blood in vertebrates) provides a rich resource for examining immune cells and proteins, contributing to our understanding of how innate immunity operates across different species. In addition, the innate immune systems of insects like M. sexta offer a valuable comparative model to the mammalian immune system. The evolutionary conservation of key immune components like Toll (or Toll-like ) receptors, along with the advantages of using insects as model organisms, make them an excellent resource for advancing our understanding of innate immunity and its implications for human health.



Ecological Significance:

While they are often considered pests, M. sexta moths play a crucial role in pollination. Their interaction with their environment, including their role in the food chain and impact on plant populations, underscores their ecological importance.



Manduca sexta is a fascinating organism, both in its natural ecology and as a model for scientific preclinical research. Its contributions to the fields of imaging and immunology are particularly noteworthy, providing vital insights into complex biological processes. This organism exemplifies how studying a single species can yield a wealth of knowledge with far-reaching implications across various biomedical disciplines.


Manduca sexta has everything it takes to be a great model for gut inflammation...

Mucus (Peritrophic matrix)

Microbiome (Bacteria)

Gut Epithelium

Immune System (innate immunity)

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