Got Milk?


Image from flickr

Many people consider their breakfast to be complete only if accompanied by a nice glass of smooth milk. As of today, milk is almost always provided from cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep but an international group of scientists is proposing that soon people could be sipping milk that comes from cockroaches! That may sound crazy but this milk is shown through research to be “super-nutritious.”

In 2004, Subramanian Ramaswamy started studying crystals that are found to be inside of the guts of cockroach embryos. These crystals come from the Pacific beetle cockroach, which is the only cockroach species that is viviparous (gives birth to live young). The mother cockroach feeds her babies with milk-like liquid as they grow inside her, which contains the crystals made of protein. Scientists studied these milk crystals up close to learn more about them. The scientists studied the atoms in the crystal and found that they will cause any x-rays beamed at it to scatter somewhat. That is why this scanning technique is known as x-ray diffraction. The scatter pattern that emerges helps scientists map the placement of those atoms making up the crystal’s structure. The scanning data showed the chemical “recipe” of the cockroach crystal and that the milk is a “complete food”. It contains sugar with a fatty acid stuck to it. The protein in the milk is also full of essential amino acids. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats while amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Baby cockroaches can’t manufacture the “essential” amino acids which is why they get them from their food (just like humans do).

Barbara Stay, a biologist at the University of Iowa, says the new scanning data shows that the roach milk is “three times more nutritious than cow’s milk and four times more nutritious than buffalo’s milk.” This concludes that the roach milk is a very rich source of bodybuilding ingredients.   Marcel Dicke studies insects as a possible source of human food at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands and says that he believes it would be very difficult to extract milk from cockroaches on a large scale, as we do with cattle. He says that “it can only likely be done in a destructive way with only minute quantities” which means that you would have to raise (and kill) a lot of insects to get even very small quantities of the milk crystals.

A possibility could be to make this milk on a great scale using yeast. Biotechnologists use yeast to make a number of products including medicine. They do this by adding new genes to yeast microbes and in this case they would add the genes that the cockroach uses to make its milk protein.  This nutritious milk may not be on the market anytime soon yet but industrial production of this milk is “wishful thinking”, as Ramaswamy admits. Only if you’re wishing for a cold glass of cockroach milk to complete your breakfast!

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Biology Teacher

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