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BIG4 - Biosystematics, Informatics and Genetics of the big 4 insect groups: training tomorrow's researchers and entrepreneurs

Insects constitute the most abundant forms of life on Earth. To exploit the enormous potential hidden in their biological diversity, we need to understand key aspects of their evolutionary origin, diversification and distribution.

Insects constitute more than half of all living species on Earth and have an enormous impact on natural or anthropogenic ecosystems. For humans they serve as important model organisms, but at the same time, they could also prove to be dangerous pests or disease vectors. Given the high ecological specialisation of insects, habitat destruction threatens many of their species with extinction before these species are even properly studied and taxonomically named.

The EU-funded interdisciplinary BIG4 project was designed to study the four largest insect groups (beetles; bees ants and wasps; flies and mosquitoes; and moths and butterflies) and the services they could potentially provide. It brought together academia and industry cutting edge methods in genomics phylogenetics and informatics; everything required to train early-stage researchers. “The idea was to tackle hotspots of the largely unknown insect diversity to better comprehend its potential for economic and societal needs″ states project coordinator Prof. Alexey Solodovnikov a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow.

Novel methodologies for insect research

Recruited researchers embarked on several synergistic and complementary projects that covered a variety of topics centred on the evolution and taxonomy of the target insect groups. They developed a digital infrastructure for acquiring and publishing high quality insect biodiversity data.

The BIG4 team demonstrated that artificial intelligence has strong potential to discover insect species with unprecedented speed and precision. An image-based identification tool was designed for citizen scientists, amateur entomologists and professional scientists employing cutting-edge image recognition technology.

In terms of biodiversity inventorying, BIG4 employed metagenomics techniques promising to completely revolutionise environmental monitoring and even species discovery. Additionally, researchers advanced methods for capturing phylogenetic data from fossil or poorly preserved recent species, using them to resolve the evolutionary relationships between the major lineages of gall wasps, moths, flies and beetles.

New protocols also served to study rare specimens and fossils with unprecedented detail. BIG4 scientists went even further and used these methods to study pathways of insect evolution such as the adaptation of their wings to various modes of flight.

Advanced DNA-sequencing techniques provided important phylogenetic information for BIG4. According to Prof Solodovnikov “extracting ancient DNA from previously non-DNA grade museum specimens will undoubtedly revolutionise biodiversity discovery.″

The next era in insect research

Collectively, BIG4 employed a wide spectrum of modern, innovative approaches to unveil the tree of life for several insect lineages helping to build on insect phylogenomics. This project is one of a few large-scale funded initiatives investigating those segments of the planetary biota, which comprise the highest concentration of the least known species diversity.

In view of the future, Prof Solodovnikov believes that “BIG4 broke the established bias of investigating bigger yet less abundant organisms. The cohort of trained young researchers, who will soon start their own research teams, will continue this legacy and invest in future insect research.″ BIG4 stressed the demand for resources to further tackle this hidden biological mega-diversity, to get a bigger picture of the living world and its functions.

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BIG4 - Biosystematics, Informatics and Genetics of the big 4 insect groups: training tomorrow's researchers and entrepreneurs

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