Indian scientists want us to drink roach ‘milk’!
Okay, deep breaths. It turns out the Pacific beetle cockroach (Diploptera punctata) – a small, coffee bean-looking species – is actually viviparous, meaning it delivers offspring that are fully-formed and live, instead of incubated within eggs. During development, the tiny roach larvae will feed off a nourishing secretion produced in their mother’s brood sac. Almost all mammals exhibit viviparity, yet only a few insects also hold this title.
Having discovered this delightful fact, biologists at India’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine decided to investigate whether milk protein crystals found in the cockroach’s gut were analogous to anything found in human or even cow’s milk. What they knew was a surprisingly protein-rich substance – plus the fact that the liquid was also incredibly stable and had a mechanism for controlled nutrient release. Because of this, the researchers believe that, if successfully synthesized, cockroach milk could be a sustainable super-food of the future.
“The crystals are like a complete food – they have proteins, fats and sugars. If you look into the protein sequences, they have all the essential amino acids,” Sanchari Banerjee, co-author of the study that had been published in the International Union of Crystallography, told the Times of India.
Banerjee and his colleagues were able to sequence the Pacific beetle cockroach’s milk, which gets its nutritional potency from special lipid-binding proteins called Lili-Mip crystals. But in order to do this, the team first needed to delicately extrude the liquid from the mid-guts of growing embryos. This whole process took approximately 54 days in a laboratory, and yielded as much milk as you’d expect to collect from the bellies of tiny cockroaches.
Obviously, trying to harvest mass quantities of this product isn’t really feasible. But with the protein’s gene sequence in hand, researchers hope to synthesize larger amounts of the cockroach’s milk. Not only could this dairy alternative be a useful source of fatty acids and calories for malnourished people, it might also be better for the environment.
We should know that traditional milk boasts a not-insignificant carbon footprint. According to a study commissioned by the Innovation Center for US Dairy in 2010, the white liquid accounted for two percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions – approximately 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon. Worldwide, the dairy industry is responsible for four percent of carbon emissions.
On the vegan side of things, plant-based alternatives aren’t much better. Almond milk, which is essentially watery nut detritus, had been excoriated after consumers realized how much water is needed to make it. Even Soylent – a meal replacement beverage, advertised as a "staple meal", available in both liquid and powdered forms – supposedly meets all nutritional requirements for an average adult, although there are critics who claim otherwise
Cockroach milk can become a panacea for hunger and sustainability But only if we can get over our aversion to drinking bug juice. Hmmm, slurp, slurp!