Insects show promise as sustainable food source

Yellow mealworm can provide benefits in wide range of agricultural applications.

September 4, 2020

3 Min Read
Beta Hatch Indiana yellow mealworm.jpg
The yellow mealworm species Tenebrio molitor. An IUPUI-led study finds the insect could serve as a good alternate protein source in agriculture. Credit: Ti Eriksson, Beta Hatch

With global food demand rising, a study led by scientists with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) found new evidence that a previously overlooked insect shows promise as alternative protein source: the yellow mealworm.

The research is based on a new analysis of the genome of the mealworm species Tenebrio molitor led by Christine Picard, associate professor of biology and director in the forensic and investigative sciences program at the IUPUI School of Science. The work was published in the Journal of Insects as Food & Feed on Aug. 31.

"Human populations are continuing to increase, and the stress on protein production is increasing at an unsustainable rate, not even considering climate change," said Picard, whose lab focuses on the use of insects to address global food demand.

The research, conducted in partnership with Beta Hatch Inc., has found that yellow mealworm — historically a pest — can provide benefit in a wide range of agriculture applications, IUPUI said in an announcement. Not only can it be used as an alternative source of protein for animals and fish, but its waste is also ideal for use as an organic fertilizer.

Picard and her team sequenced the yellow mealworm genome using 10X Chromium linked-read technology. The results will help those who now wish to utilize the DNA and optimize the yellow mealworm for mass production and consumption, the university said.

"Insect genomes are challenging, and the longer sequence of DNA you can generate, the better genome you can assemble," Picard said.

Picard added that the mealworm has — and will have — a wide variety uses.

"Mealworms, being insects, are a part of the natural diet of many organisms," Picard said. "Fish enjoy mealworms, for example. They could also be really useful in the pet food industry as an alternative protein source. Chickens like insects — and maybe one day, humans [will] too, because it's an alternative source of protein."

Next, Picard said the researchers plan to look at what governs some of the biological processes of yellow mealworms in order to harness information useful for the commercialization of these insects.

Net-zero carbon emissions

Meanwhile, researchers with the University of Exeter in the U.K. suggested that insect-based feeds for farmed animals could help the U.K. reach its net-zero carbon emissions target.

A project led by Entec Nutrition — set up by two University of Exeter scientists — has won a £250,000 grant from Innovate UK's "transforming food production" scheme to explore the science behind insect-based feeds. The team, which includes food research organization Campden BRI, will work on efficient insect production for the poultry and aquaculture industries, the University of Exeter said.

“We are thrilled to have won this Innovate UK grant with our research partners,” said Dr. Olivia Champion, who co-founded Entec Nutrition with Exeter colleague professor Richard Titball.

“It’s really exciting for Entec Nutrition to form part of the U.K.’s clean innovation solutions to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050," she said. “The funding will allow us to explore methods for low-energy production of insects to lower the cost of production and the environmental impact of the feed industry.”

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