Are Cockroaches to Replace Dairy Cows?

Margie He

Forget your kale juices and fruit smoothies – the new health trend is here! According to scientists the new superfood to try is cockroach milk. Although it seems like a skeptical drink, cockroach milk has been found to potentially have many health benefits for humans as a supplement.

The Pacific beetle cockroach (Diploptera punctate) is viviparous, or gives birth to live young instead of laying eggs, unlike other species of cockroaches. Like mammals, Pacific beetle cockroaches feed their embryos a milk-like substance, which is secreted by their brood sacs, or insect uterus. After infants ingest the milk, the nutrients in the liquid crystallize in order to be stored more easily in the midgut. The head of a research team, Dr. Leonard Chavas, discovered that the cockroach milk is remarkably nutritious and high in protein, fat, and sugar. He claims that it has three times the energy of an equal mass of buffalo milk, which was previously the most energy-dense milk available.

pouring milk in a glass isolated

Dr. Subramanian Ramaswamy, a researcher at the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine in Bangalore, India, experimented with the protein crystals. He used x-ray diffraction to determine the crystal structure, since the wavelengths of light are smaller than those in between the atoms in the crystals. The atoms scatter x-rays, which are detected and used to create a pattern, locating the positions of atoms in the lattice. In addition, the scatter pattern determines the composition of the crystals. It showed the milk to contain sugars with a fatty acid attached as well as proteins. [1] The amino acids in the milk proteins are essential for growth of the embryos. Neither humans nor baby cockroaches can produce dispensable amino acids and instead rely on their food sources. In essence, cockroach milk contains all a body needs – proteins, lipids and sugars. As a result of such a powerful food source is that Pacific beetle cockroaches grow much larger than other cockroach species.

Scientists are currently working out the ways to mass-produce cockroach milk. At the moment, the only way to obtain milk is to extract the protein crystals directly from the cockroach embryos. It is time-consuming and inefficient because of the vast quantity of cockroaches breeders would have to raise and kill to get even tiny quantities of milk. A possible method is to manufacture milk artificially in vats using genetically modified yeast. The technology of bioengineering is widely used and scientists add genes to organisms to induce production of the desired substances. For instance, it is used to produce cow-free dairy milk by a new synthetic biology start-up Muufri, which plans to launch their products on the market in 2017.[2] In the case of cockroach milk, the scientists would modify the yeast to add cockroach milk protein genes. The milk will most likely be used as a protein supplement for the impoverished, and according to informal reports, it has no taste.

While it is unknown yet whether cockroach milk is safe for human consumption, it is a viable option for bringing much-needed nutrients to people globally. With more research, it is possible that cockroach milk can one day be as common as all other types of milk that we are accustomed to.

[1] Banerjee, S., Coussens, N. P., Gallat, F.-X., Sathyanarayanan, N., Srikanth, J., Yagi, K. J., Gray, J. S. S., Tobe, S. S., Stay, B., Chavas, L. M. G. & Ramaswamy, S. Structure of a heterogeneous, glycosylated, lipid-bound, in vivo-grown protein crystal at atomic resolution from the viviparous cockroach Diploptera punctate. UCrJ, 2016; 3, 282-293.

[2] Retrieved September 28, 2016 from http://labiotech.eu/muufri-vegan-milk-synbio-startup/

Edited by: Nelli Morgulchik, Ruby Halfacre, and Shreya Singireddy