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A joint doctoral program to educate tomorrow’s insect pathologists: Solving disease problems in the upcoming insect rearing industry.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - INSECT DOCTORS (A joint doctoral program to educate tomorrow’s insect pathologists: Solving disease problems in the upcoming insect rearing industry.)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-10-31

The insect rearing industry is rapidly growing in Europe and mass production of insects is a core activity to address the global demand for animal proteins and food safety, one of the top societal and environmental priorities worldwide. Mass reared insects are however also crucial for a number of other applications, including fishery, biocontrol, human disease prevention, waste debris and pollination. Successful application of mass reared insects heavily relies on culturing large, healthy insect colonies. Insect farming generally occurs under high density monoculture conditions. In such “insect factories” insect pathogens easily emerge, leading to extensive economic losses. To be sustainable and cost-effective insect production urgently needs to become more resilient to a large range of pathogens, and therefor, in-depth knowledge on insect pathogens is crucial. Historically, insect pathologists were located at dedicated research laboratories across Europe. Only a few formal research programmes were co-ordinated between these units and most laboratories focused their PhD training on a particular type of insect pathogen (e.g. viruses, bacteria or fungi). Moreover, pathogens that threaten mass reared insects had hardly been studied, so the knowledge for disease management in insect rearing facilities was almost non-existent.

From the above we concluded that there is an urgent need to educate a new generation of highly qualified researchers with relevant skills and expertise to ensure that the insect mass rearing industry can rely on healthy insects and will be able to flourish on a cost-effective base. We have started theEuropean Joint Doctorate (EJD) programme INSECT DOCTORS to educate young scientists accross Europe in insect pathology. We aim to deliver well-educated researchers, highly knowledgeable in the breadth of disciplines within insect pathology. Through the research projects within the programme we will also increase our understanding on the biology of the pathogens that threaten the production of insects and develop the tools and methods needed to diagnose and manage pathogens in commercial insect rearing facilities.
Fifteen early stage scientists (ESRs) have been recruited. For all ESRs double degree agreements were negotiated and signed. In total eight universities participate in INSECT DOCTORS, as well as three research institutes, one FAO laboratory and four companies. The ESRs follow specially designed courses and started their research projects in Summer 2020.

The research programme is divided over three work packages: WP1 deals with pathogen host interactions, WP2 with covert viral infections, and WP3 with improving the resilience of insect mass rearing so that they become less vulnerable to disease. The research in each WP is conducted by five ESRs that are enrolled in PhD programmes at two universities. All ESRs in INSECT DOCTORS are progressing at a good speed and the first. experimental data are of good quality. One-to-one collaborative interactions between ESRs have been established for instance to determine the effect of multiple stressors on the mealworm, Tenebrio molitor. Other ESRs joined forces for in situ hybridisation methods, the development of diagnostics and bio-informatic pipelines, and for composing review papers. Several ESRs are in the process of writing research publications, the first of which has recently been published. A number of ESRs already presented their research outcomes on international conferences.

All ESRs are carefully being monitored with respect to performance, progress and mental health. They composed Training and Supervision Plans (TSP) according to the universities’ formats that laid the basis for individual Career Development Plans. All supervisors signed a form, with which they stated that the ESRs made sufficient progress in the first year of their appointment. Four specially-designed training events were held. Course I was an online theoretical course, aimed at setting the scientific frame work for the INSECT DOCTORS programme and a first option for the ESRs to get to know each other. Course II was in-person and provided laboratory training in working with diverse insect pathogens. Course III consisted of a number of online sessions and ensured that all ESRs elaborated on their research plans and discussed these with the other ESRs and the WP leaders. This course also prepared the ESRs for the Mid-term check meeting, explored options for collaborations between ESRs and dealt with topics as research integrity and PhD project management. Course IV dealt with metagenomics and was held in-person together with course II. All courses got excellent evaluations from the participants.

The INSECT DOCTORS programme is managed by a Supervisory Board, is chaired by the Project coordinator and further consist of the WP leaders, three ESR representatives and the project manager, and meets every 6 weeks online. Re-occuring issues in these meetings are the organisation of training events, the progress with the research and options for dissemination. Representatives of all participating organizations met three times: during the kick off meeting and two subsequent General Assembly meetings. How to best deal with the COVID-19 situation was also discussed at length within the consortium and finally resulted in a 6-months project extension.
It is to be expected that the number of European insect producers will further increase in the coming 10-years, but the success of these companies is heavily relying on healthy insects. The research data generated in INSECT DOCTORS will increase our understanding of insect pathogens and their interaction with mass reared insects and will lead to the development of improved rearing methods that reduce the risk of disease outbreaks in a variety of insects, as well as the tools to diagnose insect pathogens in commercial insect rearing settings.

The generated methods will first be tested and implemented in the non-for-profit and commercial INSECT DOCTORS partner organizations.
The generated scientific data will be published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at (inter-)national conferences. Joint publications co-authored by several ESRs as a result of collaborating efforts are also expected. The progress in the research projects will provide the ESRs with sufficient confidence to communicate about the INSECT DOCTORS programme and their research to a broader audience, including stakeholders and the general public. Towards the end of the programme a special symposium will be organized aimed at broader industrial dissemination for which a list of potential stakeholders has been composed. Research Progress is communicated via monthly news items on the INSECT DOCTORS website.

For the fulfilment of their European Joint Doctorate training the INSECT DOCTORS fellows will each submit a PhD thesis for examination with the aim to receive a PhD degree from two universities. With the training of this cohort of PhD candidates we will considerably increase the human capacity in the field of insect pathology and provide means for stronger market positions of insect rearing companies in Europe. At the end the joint doctorate programme as such will be evaluated with the goal to implement lessons learned in other EJD programmes.
Group photo at kick-off meeting, 2019, Wageningen, the Netherlands2019
ESRs and teaching staff, 2021, Joey-en-Josas, France