23.8: Osmoregulation in Insects
Malpighian tubules are specialized structures found in the digestive systems of many arthropods, including most insects, that handle excretion and osmoregulation. The tubules are typically arranged in pairs and have a convoluted structure that increases their surface area.
Malpighian tubules extend from the digestive tract, typically the area between the midgut and hindgut, into the hemolymph—a mixture of blood and interstitial fluid found in insects and other arthropods, as well as most mollusks.
Unlike other excretory systems, the excretory processes of Malpighian tubules lack a filtration step. Metabolic wastes, like uric acid, diffuse into the tubules from the hemolymph.
The tubules are lined with a layer of transport epithelia. These specialized epithelial cells contain pumps that actively transport ions, like sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+), from the hemolymph into the interior of the tubule, called the lumen. Osmosis allows water to follow ions into the tubules passively.
From the tubule lumen, water, ions, and waste travel from the intestine to the rectum. Tiny, protruding microvilli lining the inside of the tubules help maximize solute-water coupling and the propulsion of uric acid crystals through the tubules.
In the rectum, specialized glands pump many of the ions back into the hemolymph. Osmosis again allows water to follow ions back into the hemolymph passively. The remaining nitrogenous waste, consisting mainly of concentrated uric acid, can then be excreted from the rectum as a paste or powder, along with feces. This system of recycling water and ions effectively allows the animal to conserve water in dehydrating environments such as deserts.
The number of Malpighian tubules varies across species, developmental stages, and even individuals. For example, worker ants of the Crematogaster lineolata and Myrmicina americana species have about 5 Malpighian tubules, while desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) have about 250!