The midgut of a cockroach is not a place most people would look for a food source, but a team of scientists from the Institute of Stem Cell Biology in India have discovered milk protein crystals which are more than 3 times as nutritious as cow’s milk there.
Although cockroaches are not mammals, and don’t technically produce milk, Diploptera punctae – the only roach known to birth live young rather than lay eggs – is known to feed their young ‘milk’ containing these protein-rich crystals.
Researchers want to replicate the crystals by sequencing the genes responsible for producing them, in order to create the proteins synthetically. They then hope to get yeast to produce the proteins, so that larger quantities can be produced, without the complications of ‘milking’ them from the guts of cockroaches.
Sanchari Banerjee, a member of the team, is enthusiastic about their potential.
“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,” he said.
Here in the west, where we struggle more with obesity than with malnutrition, we may never see the crystals on supermarket shelves, as they pack a calorific punch alongside their protein content. However, scientists hope that this may be part of the answer to feeding the world’s growing population in the future, in countries where many people struggle to get enough calories each day.
The crystals are especially good for this, as they are a ‘time released’ food. As the proteins are digested, the crystals release more protein at a consistent rate, to continue the digestion.
Subramanian Ramaswamy, the leader of the project, added that it could be a “fantastic” protein supplement, saying, “If you need food that is calorifically high, that is time released, and food that is complete; this is it.”