Let me cut straight to the chase here: Yeah, there's a cockroach that gives birth to live young, and, yes, it produces a "milk" that scientists want humans to drink.
Okay, deep breaths. It turns out the Pacific beetle cockroach (Diploptera punctata)—a small, coffee bean-looking species—is actually viviparous, meaning it delivers offspring that are fully-formed and live, instead of incubated within eggs. During development, the tiny roach larvae will feed off a nourishing secretion produced in their mother's brood sac. Almost all mammals exhibit viviparity, yet only a few insects also hold this title.
Knowing that delightful fact, a team of biologists at India's Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine decided to investigate whether milk protein crystals found in the cockroach's gut were analogous to anything found in human or cow's milk. What they discovered was a surprisingly protein-rich substance containing more than three times the caloric energy of buffalo milk. In addition to its high protein content, the liquid was also incredibly stable and had a mechanism for controlled nutrient release. Because of this, the researchers believe that, if successfully synthesized, cockroach milk could be a sustainable superfood of the future.
"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," Sanchari Banerjee, co-author of the study that was recently published in the International Union of Crystallography, told the Times of India.
Banerjee and his colleagues were able to sequence the Pacific beetle cockroach's milk, which gets its nutritional potency from special lipid-binding proteins called Lili-Mip crystals. But in order to do this, the team first needed to delicately extrude the liquid from the midguts of growing embryos. This whole process took approximately 54 days in a laboratory, and yielded as much milk as you'd expect to collect from the bellies of tiny cockroaches.
Obviously, trying to harvest mass quantities of this product isn't really feasible. But with the protein's gene sequence in hand, researchers hope to synthesize larger amounts of the cockroach's milk. Not only could this dairy alternative be a useful source of fatty acids and calories for malnourished people, it might also be better for the environment.
From cow to your refrigerator, traditional milk boasts a not-insignificant carbon footprint. According to a study commissioned by the Innovation Center for US Dairy in 2010, the white stuff accounted for two percent of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions—approximately 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon. Worldwide, the dairy industry is responsible for four percent of carbon emissions.
On the vegan side of things, plant-based alternatives aren't much better. Almond milk, which is essentially watery nut detritus, was recently excoriated after consumers realized how much water is needed to make it. And Soylent, which claims to be the food of the future, still faces some serious hurdles, like the fact that most people actually like to eat.
So will cockroach milk become a panacea for hunger and sustainability? Only if people can get over their aversion to drinking bug juice. Still, desperate times call for desperate measures, and if scientists are only reproducing the crystals found in cockroach milk, is it really the same thing?
"They're very stable. They can be a fantastic protein supplement," said Subramanian Ramaswamy, another co-author of the study. "It's time-released food. If you need food that is calorically high, that is time released and food that is complete. This is it."
Hmmm, we'll think about it.