Cockroach milk: The superfood of the future is now

Researchers find an unlikely source for the next superfood.

What's four times more nutritious than cow's milk and could be key in feeding our ever-expanding population? Chances are, your guess was not cockroach milk. But that's exactly the food that an international team of scientists is banking on to become the new superfood.


A team from the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in India has sequenced a protein crystal from the gut of Diploptera punctata (Pacific Beetle Cockroach), the only known cockroach to give birth to live young. To feed its offspring, the roach also produces a milk-like substance with protein crystals which have three times the energy of buffalo milk.

Before you start imagining how you can milk a cockroach, the scientists have dismissed such an option and are instead sequencing the genes responsible for the production of milk protein crystals. "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," said one scientist from the team, Sanchari Banerjee, to the Times of India.


Diploptera punctata Len Worthington on Flickr


What's also fascinating, the milk crystals release proteins not all at once but in accordance with the speed of digestion.

The leader of the project, Subramanian Ramaswamy, confirmed that: "It's time-released food if you need food that is calorifically high, that is time released and food that is complete. This is it."

This calorie-rich food will be especially helpful to those who struggle to get the necessary amount of calories per day. The roach milk can be a quick source of necessary nutrition, with Ramaswamy calling it “a fantastic protein supplement".

Cockroaches decorated with Romanian (R) and French flags run at the cockroaches racing course built by Berlin-based Russian painter Nikolai Makarov in his studio in Berlin, on June 10, 2016 ahead of the start of the Euro 2016. (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Whether enough people around the world can get around the obvious gross-out factor that comes from any combination of cockroaches and food is largely dependent on how this kind of milk will be made.

As the scientists completed the sequencing, they are moving on to producing the crystal in much larger quantities. In particular, they are looking to focus on how create the food without resorting to milking cockroaches or otherwise pulling the crystals from their guts.

Here's where you can read the full paper, with the exciting title: “Structure of a heterogeneous, glycosylated, lipid-bound, in vivo-grown protein crystal at atomic resolution from the viviparous cockroach Diploptera punctata."

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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