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New Insect Cell Line Database to Help Researchers Across the Globe

Microscope view of Spodoptera frugiperda cells

Insect cells serve as valuable testing tools for research and development in a variety of fields and industries, with the global count of established cell lines now at more than 1,200. A new database allows scientists to find and identify insect cell lines that could best match their research goals. Shown here are nerve cells from the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), maintained in cell line “SfNS3-0827” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Biological Control of Insects Research Laboratory in Columbia, Missouri, USA. (Photo by Surjeet Arya, Ph.D.)

By Subba Reddy Palli, Ph.D.

Over the past quarter century, the number of insect cell lines developed and their use in various applications has increased. Scientists have established more than 1,270 insect cell lines from a wide range of insects and different source tissues. The University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment’s new Insect Cell Lines database, reported in August in In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology – Animal, makes it easier for researchers to find specific cell lines in this growing field.

For example, biopharmaceutical manufacturers are increasingly using insect cell lines. Bombyx mori, Mamestra brassicae, Spodoptera frugiperda, Trichoplusia ni, and Drosophila melanogaster cell lines stand out among the more than 100 lines currently available for recombinant protein production. This is because most post-translational protein modifications are possible in insect cells but not in prokaryotic systems (e.g., bacteria), which is why scientists frequently use insect cell lines instead of prokaryotes.

The online database describes the known cell lines from the insect taxonomic orders Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera developed from agricultural pests and includes insect cell lines from insects that feed on crops. Query results in the new database show a table listing the tissue of origin, species, common names, and orders of the source insects; virus susceptibility; and references for all reported cell lines.

A primary goal for the database is to enable better development of technologies that could be used to control arthropod pests. Scientists working on the discovery and development of pesticides said a database of cell lines would make it easier to conduct their research.

Controlling insect pests with non-selective chemical pesticides negatively affects the environment and costs billions of dollars each year. In response, researchers are working to find sustainable alternatives for these chemicals. Culturing cells in a lab is a much more cost-effective option than using whole insects for research. Other benefits of working with continuous cell lines include cryopreserving cell lines for decades, allowing for greater reproducibility, and the cell lines’ use in high-throughput screening.

Insect cell line use has also expanded from the laboratory to the industrial scale, and scientists now use them to create bio-insecticidal viruses and produce recombinant proteins. Insect signaling and immunity research, as well as discovering new insecticide chemistries through screening programs, heavily rely on cell lines.

Cell lines are used as a substitute for using animals like insects because they have many limitations. For example, insects are only available seasonally, and not all are available when you need them. With cell lines, however, millions of cells are available, and researchers can go into the lab and treat them with different agents to see how they respond to something such as a new potential insecticide.

Virologists have also used cell lines for years to learn about signal transduction pathways and how viruses interact with their hosts. These lines make possible fundamental cellular-process discoveries, such as cellular resistance mechanisms and baculovirus replication.

This research is funded by work supported by the National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers program, the Center for Arthropod Management Technologies (CAMTech), and by industry partners. CAMTech is an NSF IUCRC at the University of Florida and University of Kentucky. Scientists from the Biological Control of Insects Research Laboratory, United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, also participated in developing this database.

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A database of crop pest cell lines

In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology – Animal

Subba Reddy Palli, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky and co-director of the Center for Arthropod Management Technologies. Email:

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