Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society
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Freeze tolerance - the ability to survive internal ice formation - has evolved repeatedly in insects, facilitating survival in environments with low temperatures and/or high risk of freezing. Surviving internal ice formation poses several challenges because freezing can cause cellular dehydration and mechanical damage, and restricts the opportunity to metabolise and respond to environmental challenges. While freeze-tolerant insects accumulate many potentially protective molecules, there is no apparent 'magic bullet' - a molecule or class of molecules that appears to be necessary or sufficient to support this cold-tolerance strategy. In addition, the mechanisms underlying freeze tolerance have been minimally explored. Herein, we frame freeze tolerance as the ability to survive a process: freeze-tolerant insects must withstand the challenges associated with cooling (low temperatures), freezing (internal ice formation), and thawing. To do so, we hypothesise that freeze-tolerant insects control the quality and quantity of ice, prevent or repair damage to cells and macromolecules, manage biochemical processes while frozen/thawing, and restore physiological processes post-thaw. Many of the molecules that can facilitate freeze tolerance are also accumulated by other cold- and desiccation-tolerant insects. We suggest that, when freezing offered a physiological advantage, freeze tolerance evolved in insects that were already adapted to low temperatures or desiccation, or in insects that could withstand small amounts of internal ice formation. Although freeze tolerance is a complex cold-tolerance strategy that has evolved multiple times, we suggest that a process-focused approach (in combination with appropriate techniques and model organisms) will facilitate hypothesis-driven research to understand better how insects survive internal ice formation.