One species of cockroach produces milk
Protein rich, this insect milk may someday serve as a human superfood
A little cockroach milk with those cookies? Chock full of protein, the insect milk may someday be transformed into a food supplement worthy of human consumption, new research indicates.
Scientists have found that the Pacific Beetle Cockroach feeds its bug babies a formula which is remarkably rich in protein, fat and sugar.
Don’t expect to find it next to the regular milk in the dairy section, however, at least not for now.
“Any liquid harvested from a cockroach is not true milk. At least not as we think of it,” said Becky Facer, director of school and educator programs at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.
Most people would agree. After all, the insect liquid takes the form of protein crystals in the guts of baby cockroaches.
“The protein crystals are milk for the cockroach infant. It is important for its growth and development,” said Leonard Chavas, one of the scientists behind the research. He explained the crystals have a whopping three times the energy of an equivalent mass of buffalo milk, about four times the equivalent of cow’s milk.
“The interest here was, what is it really made of?” said Chavas, one of the authors of the research, published in July in the journal International Union of Crystallography.
Chavas and his colleagues examined the species, also known as Diploptera punctata, which is the only species of cockroach known to be viviparous – able to bring forth live babies that have developed within the mother’s body, instead of the mother laying eggs to develop outside her body.
Like other viviparous creatures, this species of roach nourishes its growing embryos with a protein-rich liquid secreted by its brood sac – the roach version of a uterus.
Soon after the embryo ingests the liquid, protein crystals develop within its midgut. Chavas and his colleagues extracted one of these crystals to learn more about it and its potential nutrition. Following tests and even genome sequencing, they discovered it was a complete food.
“It is what one would need: protein, essential amino acids, lipids and sugars,” Chavas said, explaining that the energy content is so high that it helps infants within this unique species grow much bigger than cockroach babies of other species.
Though the crystal formation may seem surprising, other crystals, including insulin, take shape within the body for easier bodily storage – and it could have potential for human consumption, the research suggests.
So, how do you milk a cockroach?
The crystals are currently extracted from the midgut of cockroach embryos – perhaps not the most efficient way of feeding a growing world population.
Ultimately, however, Chavas and his team are hoping to reverse bioengineer cockroach milk, but first they need to understand the exact biological and chemical mechanisms underlying the process.
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“For now, we are trying to understand how to control this phenomena in a much easier way, to bring it to mass production,” Chavas said.
Having lost a drinking game with his colleagues, Chavas tasted the cockroach milk once. “No particular taste,” he commented, though the idea of ice cream appeals to him. He imagines “a flavor with honey and crispy pieces.”
Laugh as you may, there is no irony lost on the fact that that this insect that can survive a nuclear disaster may someday provide the ultimate liquid superfood.
Intern Clara Lindh contributed to this report.