Complete metamorphosis and microbiota turnover in insects

Christin Manthey, Paul R Johnston*, Shinichi Nakagawa, Jens Rolff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The insects constitute the majority of animal diversity. Most insects are holometabolous: during complete metamorphosis their bodies are radically reorganized. This reorganization poses a significant challenge to the gut microbiota, as the gut is replaced during pupation, a process that does not occur in hemimetabolous insects. In holometabolous hosts, it offers the opportunity to decouple the gut microbiota between the larval and adult life stages resulting in high beta diversity whilst limiting alpha diversity. Here, we studied 18 different herbivorous insect species from five orders of holometabolous and three orders of hemimetabolous insects. Comparing larval and adult specimens, we find a much higher beta-diversity and hence microbiota turnover in holometabolous insects compared to hemimetabolous insects. Alpha diversity did not differ between holo- and hemimetabolous insects nor between developmental stages within these groups. Our results support the idea that pupation offers the opportunity to change the gut microbiota and hence might facilitate ecological niche shifts. This possible effect of niche shift facilitation could explain a selective advantage of the evolution of complete metamorphosis, which is a defining trait of the most speciose insect taxon, the holometabola.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6543-6551
Number of pages9
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number23
Early online date24 Nov 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • Animals
  • Insecta/genetics
  • Larva
  • Metamorphosis, Biological
  • Microbiota/genetics
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome/genetics


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