Research page Shantanu Shukla MRDG IISc


Our research focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of long-term host-microbe associations. We primarily study insects to understand the role of microorganisms in mediating host adaptation to abiotic and biotic stresses. A major aim of the lab is to understand how resident bacteria and fungi help insects to thrive on suboptimal or nutritionally imbalanced diets by providing enzymes and metabolites that cannot be synthesized by insects themselves.  

Broadly, our research revolves around the following major themes:

1.  Characterizing the molecular basis of digestion and nutritional supplementation by resident microorganisms. 

2. Understanding the effects of microbial metabolism on insect development, behavior, reproduction and ecological function.

3. Leveraging our understanding of fundamental insect-microbiome interactions to develop novel biotechnological applications in health and agriculture.

Our group studies economically important insects to understand the role of the microbiome in their exploitation of plants and ephemeral resources.

Research approach

We use a multidisciplinary approach to elucidate the molecular and cellular nuts-and-bolts of insect-microbe long term associations in order to gain a better understanding of how and why the interacting organisms show the traits that we observe. The lab asks questions at multiple levels ranging from molecules to organisms and communities. 

The research primarily uses methods in next-generation sequence analysis, molecular biology and microbiology. However, we use a range of other approaches ranging from biochemistry, bioinformatics, ecology and whatever-else-is-required to get a comprehensive understanding of the role of the microbiome in host nutritional physiology. 

We aim to use our understanding of fundamental aspects of insect-microbiome associations to develop applications in health and agriculture.  

Illustration showing potential applications of studying insect-microbe associations. For more details see the original paper in Applied Microbial Biotechnology.

Why insects?

Insects are an extraordinarily successful group of animals that can feed on a wide range of diets. From feeding on fungi, detritus, leaves, plant sap and pollen, animal blood and feathers, to carcasses – insects can successfuly exploit challenging and potentially noxious diets. Despite the widespread recognition of their ecological success, our understanding of the molecular basis of their dietary triumphs is poor. Understanding the mechanistic basis of how insects achieve this extraordinary task is itself a major motivation.

Insects are also incredibly important. EO Wilson describes insects (and invertebrates) as “the little things that run the world”. They get very little credit for keeping alive food webs, for engineering important ecological processes, for shaping terrestrial biomass dynamics, and for pollinating plants which ensures the success of many of our crops. Thus, understanding insect nutritional physiology and ecology has both fundamental and applied significance.

Insects show highly complex and intricate associations with microorganisms. In some species, these associations are obligatory – insects cannot survive without their symbionts and the microbes have lost their free living ability outside their insect hosts. Such interdependence has ramifications on the biology of both the interacting partners at the genomic, morphological, behavioral and ecological levels. Insect-microbe interactions thus offer a fascinating chance to study the ancient phenomenon of symbiosis that has altered the very way life has evolved on the planet.

Their dietary specializations across life stages, their growth in microbe-rich habitats, their diverse adaptations to abiotic factors and their remarkable diversity makes insects an excellent model system to ask interesting questions in physiology and ecology. 

Thanks for your interest in the lab’s research.

– Shantanu