NSF Postdoctoral Fellowships in Biology combine research and training components to prepare young scientists for careers in biology and provide them an opportunity to establish international collaborations and take advantage of research facilities and opportunities abroad. Forging strong international collaborations is mutually beneficial to the U.S. and the foreign hosts. This fellowship to Dr. Matan Shelomi supports a research and training plan for analyzing plant cell wall degrading enzymes in leaf-feeding insects. The host institution for this fellowship is the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, and the sponsoring scientist is Dr. Yannick Pauchet. From a scientific viewpoint, how and when insects acquired the genes required for breaking down plant cell walls, an ability found primarily in microbes, is an intersting question: were they present in a common ancestor or were they acquired from microbes? From a practical viewpoint, leaf-feeding insects are common pests and discovering the chemical basis for their digestion could provide avenues for control. The same enzymes are also used in human industry, from wastewater treatment and biofuel development to papermaking and juice production. Insect-derived enzymes could be more powerful than extant microbial chemicals and leaf-feeding insects are the most promising source for such enzymes. The region around Jena is home to several technology incubators like the Innovation and Founders' Laboratory for New Materials and Processes, which are expected to expedite societal applications for the research findings. Thie fellowship is funded jointly by the Office of International and Integrative Activities and the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

The research objectives of the fellowship are to inventory the digestive system of the stick and leaf insects (Phasmatodea), starting with the model species Peruphasma schultei, Medauroidea extradentata, and Ramulus artemis, for endogenous plant cell wall degrading enzymes, with an emphasis on endopolygalacturonases (pectinases). On a diet solely of leaves, phasmids are able to reach large sizes in a short period of time, including that of the world's longest insect, the half-meter-long Phobaetica chani. Given the large amount of lignocellulosic matter they ingest, the ability to digest plant cell walls completely would provide an obvious nutritional benefit and fitness boost to the phasmids. The study further investigates the evolution of plant cell degrading enzymes in these insects with the potential for biotechnolgy applications.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI)
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Amanda Simcox
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Shelomi Matan
United States
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