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PET Caterpillars

Caterpillars as models to enable high throughput study of the gut, colitis and the microbiome

08 January 2023

PET Caterpillars

Usually found in hospitals, positron emission tomography (PET) scanners are chamber-sized devices that help to diagnose diseases, spotting changes in how tissues metabolise or break down chemical tracers in a similar way to sugars. The approach helps millions of people during diagnosis, but using PET for research on mammals is expensive with many ethical issues. On the hunt for alternatives, scientists turn to caterpillars. Similar enough to humans in their genetics and large enough that their insides can be inspected by PET, the larvae of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) make excellent model organisms. Here, using electron microscopy the gut of a healthy caterpillar (left) is compared with cells changed by a bacterial infection (right) – mimicking inflammation seen in colitis – which can be reversed with antibiotics. Caterpillars may have lots to teach us not only about how certain inflammatory diseases progress, but also how researchers might improve and expand on techniques like PET.

Written by John Ankers

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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