Next time you clench your teeth and gulp down a kale smoothie in the interests of health, spare a thought for the superfood junkies of the future. Scientists have identified a milk protein in a certain type of cockroach that has three times the energy of buffalo milk, and are now working to transform it into food supplements to give those who are game a nutritional boost.
Hang on a second, cockroaches produce milk? Well, largely no, but there is one exception. The Pacific Beetle cockroach (Diploptera punctata) that scuttles around the Asia Pacific region is known to be the only cockroach in the world that gives birth to live young, just like us mammals. And part of this includes lactating to provide them with milk for nutrition.
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An international team of scientists has now detailed the structure of crystallized proteins found in the milk using X-ray crystallography, which allowed it to determine the position of each individual atom and their bonds within the crystal. And it turns out that each crystal contains a range of things that might be useful for us humans.
"The milk protein crystals are like a complete food, they have proteins, lipids and sugars," says Sanchari Banerjee, one of the authors of the paper. "If you look into the protein sequences, they have all the essential amino acids."
With a detailed understanding of its makeup, the team is now looking at ways to reproduce the milk protein crystals in large quantities, so you don't have to go chowing down on cockroach guts to get your fix. And they might carry another advantage, too. The scientists say that the crystals are slow-releasing, so as the protein is digested, the crystal releases more protein at an equivalent rate.
"It's time-released food," explains Sridhar Ramaswamy, faculty member of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (InStem) in Bangalore. "Besides this, these crystals have three times the calorific content of buffalo milk. If you need food that is calorifically high that is time released and food that is complete, this is it."
A cockroach salad doesn't sound like a great entrée, to be sure, but turning to insects as a food source isn't so unpalatable to everyone. With low environmental costs and high nutritional value, some see the little critters as a real solution to a potential food security crisis. With that said, if the InStem team can synthesize the milk protein crystals and leave the Pacific Beetle cockroach in peace, we'll be perfectly okay with that too.
The research was published in the International Union of Crystallography.