Cockroaches have never brought a pleasant expression on people’s faces.Will that change if we know they are a source of milk protein that has thrice the calorific content of buffalo milk?
Or that scientists are actually mulling food supplements made using synthesised protein crystals that will match all properties of those generated by roaches?
All of these are true. And, it took nearly ten years for a team of scientists from US, Canada, Japan, France and India, including those from the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), to arrive at these findings after the discovery of crystallised milk proteins in roaches.
It all started with Nathan Coussens, a researcher under Professor Ramaswamy S at the University of Iowa. Upon finding shiny crystals spilling out of roach guts, Coussens began investigating. Investigations on roach species Diploptera punctata led him to discover milk protein crystals. “I just thought they were uric acid crystals. But Nathan was right to have been so persistent,“ Ramaswamy says.
“Milk protein crystals are like complete food. They have proteins, fats, sugars and all essential amino acids,“ Sanchari Banerjee, one of the authors of a recent paper, says. Professor Ramaswamy , Sanchari and their colleagues -now armed with the gene sequence for milk proteins from roaches -plan to use a yeast system to produce the crystals en masse. “They can be a fantastic protein supplement,“ Ramaswamy says.
He adds that the crystals that scientists are planning to create which can be used for food supplements are synthetic and not directly extracted from roaches. “That’s more due to a psychological reason. Nobody will eat anything made from roaches. Also, now we can actually recreate these things,“ he told TOI.
The crystalline nature has an advantage. Crystals are an equilibrium between what exists in solid state and in solution –formed after some portion of the crystal is dissolved inside the body .
“Crystal has a high concentration of proteins and the solution has a low concentration of the same. Because crystals breakdown slightly slower, the protein in the solution is used up first. And, as they are used up, say , by digestion, the crystal releases protein at an equivalent rate,“ a scientist explained.
This, Ramaswamy says, “Is time-released food. These crystals have three times the calorific content of buffalo milk. If you need complete food that is calorifically high and time-released, this is it.“
Also, the scaffolding in milk protein crystals shows fascinating characteristics that can be used to design nanoparticles for drug delivery .
Scientists say milk protein crystals in roach guts are a rare example of protein crystals grown in a living organism. In living systems, protein crystals are generally formed in cells and are small.They are not very useful for studying protein structure.
“In contrast, the milk crystals in roach guts grow large enough and we could solve the structure of insect milk proteins,“ a scientist said.