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© Anton Windfelder

Good science education is the cornerstone of progress, innovation, and critical thinking in our rapidly advancing world. We contribute to this vital cause by igniting curiosity through hands-on experiments, fostering an environment where questioning is encouraged, and inspiring a new generation to embrace functional multimodal imaging in insects and other models.


Here are current suggestions for B.Sc., M.Sc. or Ph.D. theses topics. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have an idea for another topic.

manduca sexta in multimodel imaging (CT,micro CT, MRI and PET)
© Anton Windfelder
A mouse for comparison next to a Manduca sexta larva
© Anton Windfelder

Caterpillars as a replacement for mammalian models in preclinical research

Insect larvae such as tobacco hornworm can accelerate and economize preclinical research by complementing classic laboratory animals such as rats and mice. Small mammals like mice or rats are indispensable for preclinical research. However, growing ethical concerns led to the incorporation of the 3R principle (replacement, reduction, and refinement) into animal experiments legislation and research funding. In the future, the number of vertebrate laboratory animals should be reduced, and non-vertebrate alternatives should be used where possible. Furthermore, the incorporation of the 3R principle will also economize preclinical research since insect husbandry is much cheaper than the traditional housing of laboratory mammals. In that context, insect larvae like Manduca can serve as an alternative in vivo animal model. Mainly, with the high degree of evolutionary conservation in the innate immunity of the gut and similarities in the enteric epithelial structure, Manduca sexta can serve as a model for human gut inflammation. Recently we employed larvae of the tobacco hornworm Manduca sexta, which are big enough for macroscopic imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) as a high-throughput platform to study the innate immunity of the gut and host-pathogen interactions. The developed platform represents an ethically acceptable, resource-saving, large-scale, and 3R-compatible screening tool for various life science disciplines, including the identification of new effectors and inhibitors in gut inflammation, the assessment of pesticides or other environmental factors, the assessment and evaluation of new antibiotic therapies, the analysis of host-pathogen interactions, and the identification of new contrast agents or tracers in radiology. Since 75% of the known human disease-causing genes have homologs in insects, this approach will also be helpful in testing preclinical hypotheses in inflammatory bowel disease. Project 1.1 Gut wall thickness measurements Our high throughput approach generates a massive amount of images (e.g., in computed tomography). We are seeking a bioinformatician for help with automatic image segmentation and analysis. To detect gut inflammation, we inject the caterpillars with clinical contrast agents. This helps to detect the gut wall. For the analysis, we need to segment the different gut parts (foregut, midgut, and hindgut) and then measure the thickness of each gut part's gut wall (e.g., with Full width at half maximum measurements). Your task is to develop such a measurement method. Project 1.2 Testing of further imaging modalities. We seek a highly motivated student to test whether additional imaging modalities like ultrasonography or bioluminescence imaging are compatible with Manduca sexta. 1.3 Manduca as a new model for ecotoxicology In 2017, the "Krefeld Study" brought insect mortality into the public consciousness and into the focus of research. The study documented a decline in insect biomass of almost 80% over a period of 27 years. Since then, an intensive search for the causes has been underway. Today, it is clear that there is no monocausal cause for the massive decline in insects. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mass application of pesticides as part of conventional agriculture has a strong negative effect on insect biodiversity and is one of the main reasons for insect mortality. In this project, we will investigate whether the above-mentioned imaging techniques can be used to document the harmful effects of pesticides on insects. Further reading: •Windfelder, Anton G., et al. "High-throughput screening of caterpillars as a platform to study host–microbe interactions and enteric immunity." Nature communications 13.1 (2022): 7216. •Windfelder, Anton G., et al. "A quantitative micro-tomographic gut atlas of the lepidopteran model insect Manduca sexta." iScience 26.6 (2023). •Koshkina, Olga, et al. "Biodegradable polyphosphoester micelles act as both background-free 31P magnetic resonance imaging agents and drug nanocarriers." Nature Communications 14.1 (2023): 4351.

The anatomy of a tobacco hawk moth larva in virtual reality.

3d Anatomical studies using micro-CT

How does a caterpillar look from the inside? Traditional methods like histology are great tools to understand the cellular basis of anatomy. However, these methods are slow and limited to two dimensions. This project will employ high-resolution micro-CT imaging to reveal the anatomy of Manduca sexta in 3D. We have already published data about the digestive system of Manduca sexta. This thesis will focus on the tracheal (respiratory) system or the malpighian tubules (excretory) system or the muscular system of M. sexta. Further reading: •Windfelder, Anton G., et al. "A quantitative micro-tomographic gut atlas of the lepidopteran model insect Manduca sexta." iScience 26.6 (2023). •Windfelder, Anton G., et al. "High-throughput screening of caterpillars as a platform to study host–microbe interactions and enteric immunity." Nature communications 13.1 (2022): 7216.

© Anton Windfelder

Micro CT Imaging of the Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar
Volume rendering of a late L5d6 Manduca sexta larva with virtual endoscopy of the stomodeal valve and foregut.

Behavioral fever in insects?

Fever is a biological response found across a spectrum of animal groups, spanning from arthropods to mammals, wherein the organism demonstrates the capability to increase its body temperature as a reaction to pathogens or related elements. This heightened body temperature has the potential to improve an organism's chances of survival following an infection, thereby increasing its overall adaptability. Nevertheless, the occurrence and extent of fever reactions exhibit variations both within and among different species. This project aims to investigate if the caterpillars of Manduca sexta show signs of behavioral fever after an immunological challenge. • Stahlschmidt ZR, Adamo SA. Context dependency and generality of fever in insects. Naturwissenschaften. 2013 Jul;100(7):691-6. doi: 10.1007/s00114-013-1057-y. Epub 2013 May 26. PMID: 23709012. • Haddad F, Soliman AM, Wong ME, Albers EH, Semple SL, Torrealba D, Heimroth RD, Nashiry A, Tierney KB, Barreda DR. Fever integrates antimicrobial defences, inflammation control, and tissue repair in a cold-blooded vertebrate. Elife. 2023 Mar 14;12:e83644.

Get Manduca larvae fever?
© Anton Windfelder

Here you can find projects that are already occupied by students

The Curious Case of the Caterpillar’s Missing Microbes

Do the caterpillars of Manduca sexta lack a resident gut microbiome? Lately, the idea was challenged that most animals harbor beneficial microbial communities. A prominent study showed that most caterpillars lack a resident gut microbiome. This thesis challenges this idea! We have an extended 16S rRNA Dataset containing gut samples from 16 larvae from different anatomical positions, samples from host plants, and samples from the artificial diet. Your job is to conduct a gut microbiome analysis of the insect larva of Manduca sexta. What we can say for now is that we have found microbes :) Further reading: •Windfelder, Anton G., et al. "High-throughput screening of caterpillars as a platform to study host–microbe interactions and enteric immunity." Nature communications 13.1 (2022): 7216. •Windfelder, Anton G., et al. "A quantitative micro-tomographic gut atlas of the lepidopteran model insect Manduca sexta." iScience 26.6 (2023).

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© Anton Windfelder
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© Anton Windfelder

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Fraunhofer-Institut für Molekularbiologie und Angewandte Oekologie IME Institutsteil Bioressourcen

Ohlebergsweg 12, 35392 Gießen, Germany

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