Cell and Tissue Research

, Volume 377, Issue 3, pp 397–414 | Cite as

Extracellular nutrient digestion and absorption in the insect gut

  • Michiel Holtof
  • Cynthia Lenaerts
  • Darron Cullen
  • Jozef Vanden BroeckEmail author


Insects are the most abundant and diverse class of animals on the planet. One explanation for their success is their extraordinary ability to successfully consume a wide range of foods. Like all heterotrophic organisms, insects need to acquire vital nutrients from their diet. The central organ for food digestion and absorption of nutrients is the gastrointestinal tract. This organ’s principal functions are mediating the efficient digestion of the diet and protecting the organism against harmful chemicals, microorganisms, and mechanical damage from the food. These functions are achieved through regional differentiation of the alimentary canal as well as highly flexible adaptations to the consumed diets, both at anatomical and molecular levels. Numerous studies describing the general gut morphology and associated digestive mechanisms of various insects exist. Nevertheless, the molecular patterns underlying digestion and nutrient uptake in insects are still poorly characterized. This review aims to provide an overview of the general strategies of extracellular macronutrient digestion and consequent nutrient absorption found among different orders of insects.


Insect Gastrointestinal tract Digestive enzymes Nutrient digestion Nutrient absorption 



The Research Foundation of Flanders (FWO) and the Research Foundation of KU Leuven (C14/15/050) are gratefully acknowledged for their support. In addition, MH is supported by a PhD fellowship granted by the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology (IWT; Project Number 141447) and CL by a post-doctoral position of the KU Leuven Internal Funds (PDM 18/111). MH wrote the initial text. CL designed the figures. CL, DC, and JVB edited the manuscript. JVB is the senior academic author.

Compliance with ethical standards

This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed consent

Not applicable.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Animal Physiology and NeurobiologyZoological Institute KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Department of ZoologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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