Tag Archives: cricket

Worm Meatball and Cricket Falafel — Researchers develop tasty food from yucky critters

When it comes to food, we tend to stick to what works — and for most of the world, insects are not on the menu. But in recent years, the idea of eating insects has gained traction across the world and some researchers argue that bugs can be a key part of a sustainable diet. For people who find it hard to go past the ‘yuck factor’, a team from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has some good news: they’ve made tasty meatballs and falafel from crickets and worms.

VTT has developed raw materials from mealworms and crickets which, due to their promising structure and flavour, can be used in the manufacture of foods such as meatballs and falafel. Image credits: VTT

Crickets and worms are the most widely farmed insects in Western countries. I’ve had the chance to taste crickets and can say that they’re not nearly as bad as I would have imagined. A bit stale, but nothing a cold beer can’t wash down. Many other people are also starting to consider insects as a food source, but there’s a problem — people wouldn’t really like to cook insects, for obvious reasons. They also wouldn’t like it to come in a raw form and eat insects one by one. Most consumers would presumably like the food to come in a different form, something pre-cooked or pre-prepared to make it easier to digest (more mentally than physically). Ideally, something that people are already used to — and that’s what the VTT team went for.

They developed a dry fractionation method which separates insect fractions with varying flavors and degrees of coarseness. The finer fractions contain small amounts of the insect’s chitin shell which tend to be rough on the tongue and have a strong meat-like taste, while the coarse fractions have less flavor and more chitin. During the process, fat was also removed from the insects, leaving them with up to 65-80% crude protein.

Then, they figured that since insect fractions are very effective at binding things together, they might work well in things like meatballs or falafel. They replaced 5-18% of meatball or falafel dough with insect fractions, which doubled or even tripled the meal’s protein count. As for the taste? It was just as delicious as the original thing, or at least that’s what they tell us.

Several food manufacturers are already looking at ways through which insects can penetrate the food market. At the moment, insects have not been granted a novel food authorisation within the European Union, but such a decision is expected to come in 2018. In their basic form, insects are already available in some countries in Europe and eating them seems to have become somewhat of a trend. The United Nations promotes insect-eating as a sustainable approach which made them more popular, and it seems reasonable that more and more people will start eating the little critters — but if they could be incorporated into some processed foods, that would certainly help make them more palatable.

Still, there are also environmental concerns about eating insects. A 2016 PLOS study placed a question mark around the whole thing.

“I think the sustainability claims on this topic have been overstated given the current state of knowledge,” wrote study author Dr. Mark Lundy of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in an e-mail to Time.

So, where do you stand on this? Is eating insects OK? What about insect meatballs? The comment bar is your oyster!

A female decorated cricket, with spermatophore attached, dismounts male. Photo: tomhouslay.com

This sexually transmitted virus castrates crickets, but encourages sexual activity

A female decorated cricket, with spermatophore attached, dismounts male. Photo:  tomhouslay.com

A female decorated cricket, with spermatophore attached, dismounts male. Photo: tomhouslay.com

Meet one of slickest and twisted virus nature has to offer. Called  IIV-6/CrIV , researchers at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia  discovered the virus effectively castrates crickets, while promoting sexual activity at the same time like an aphrodisiac so it can spread. It’s an incredibly effective strategy for the virus, but can we learn anything from it?

Like with most insects, crickets’ mating ritual seems oddball to say the least for us humans who are used to more familiar forms of intercourse. The male and female first initialize courtship by brushing each others antennae – no tongue! Then the female mounts the male and brushes his abdomen, which secrets sperm. The sperm is pumped into the female  for a good half an hour, which will go on to fertilize her hundred or so eggs.

A viral aphrodisiac

For the bugs infected with IIV-6/CrIV everything goes according to plan, seemingly. The infected male or female go on with their business per usual, only there won’t be any offspring  left in the process, since the virus essentially sterilizes the crickets, while promoting mating at the same time. Soon enough, following mating, the female will become swollen and blue, unable to lay eggs.

Biologist Shelley Adamo closely inspected the phenomenon by dissecting  a few infected crickets in the lab. She found the insects’ fat bodies became bloated and blue. The fat body is the perfect headquarters for interfering with communication between the immune system and the nervous system, and for altering its host’s behavior and physiology. Here, the organs were full of microscopic  hexagonal viral particles that had packed themselves into a crystalline shape, giving the blue color.

The virus castrates its hosts, but otherwise makes them look healthy. The biologists found that the male could still produce sperm, but the cells were immobile, while females only had a few eggs or none, instead of a hundred or so typically found in uninfected samples. Despite this, the males still wanted to mate – they were actually more sexually active than otherwise. Typically, uninfected males wait for 10 minutes or so before serenading their mates. The males infected by the IIV-6/CrIV virus went to business in under 3 minutes. Meanwhile, the females, whether they had the virus or not, all mounted the males without discrimination.

Sick animals usually don’t end up transmitting their genes either because they’re unable to perform sexually due to weakness or can’t find a mate since they look unattractive. The virus is a slick one. Infected crickets not only have a sped up courtship, their immune system is actually boosted to make them more attractive. It’s a brilliant strategy on behalf of the virus, one that helps it spread its wings along with the cricket.

A winning strategy

Other parasites and virus do it, too. Rabies makes its host more aggressive so it can infect other organisms. Hairworms turn their grasshopper hosts into suicide jumpers so they can get to water. Some wasps force spiders to build weird webs to support their cocoons.

Some may wonder, could we engineer a virus like IIV-6/CrIV to destroy pests? The short answer is yes. For instance, scientists bred mosquitoes with a gene that is lethal to the insect, but only activates in the second generation. So the mosquitoes mate as per usual, but their offspring die in larva form. The strategy seems to be effective for warding off diseases like malaria which infects 500 million people each year and kills around two million. You wouldn’t want to do something like with anything, though. The ecoystem is in an fine balance – wipe out a parasitic species and there’s no telling what might happen next. Ecological niches are in place for a reason and they rarely go unserved. There will always be organisms waiting to fill the gap left, so you could end up doing more harm than good.

The findings on the  IIV-6/CrIV  were detailed in a paper published in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

Cricket virus acts like an aphrodisiac, but effectively castrates its hosts

cricket

The characteristic “chirp” a cricket makes is created when the insects rub their legs, in an attempt to draw the attention of any nearby female. If he is successful and finds an interested counterpart, the couple quickly gets down to business. Interestingly enough, it’s the female that mounts the male, but that’s less important here; what is important is the devastating virus that affects cricket populations – acting like an aphrodisiac, but rendering its hosts infertile.

The virus, known as IIV-6/CrIV spreads through sexual contact, so it has everything to benefit from cricket copulation. However, as researchers showed, the virus actually caused the sexual contact in the first place! It’s a brilliant bit of behavior manipulation, but not unique; several viruses alter the behavior of the host in order to improve their chances of survival and replication – and it’s not only viruses that do this. Hairworms turn their grasshopper hosts into suicide jumpers so they can get to water while some wasps force spiders to build weird webs to support their cocoons.

Biologist Shelley Adamo noticed something was strange with some of the crickets she kept at the Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia stopped laying eggs. She dissected some of them and found that their reproductive organs had turned blue and were severely bloated – clearly something was awry. She continued her studies and with the help of a microscope found that  the organs were full of hexagonal viral particles that had packed themselves into a crystalline shape, especially the so-called “fat bodies” – an organ that stores fats and produces proteins for the immune system. This was the best place for the virus to infect, because it could affect the communication between the immune system and the nervous system, as well as alter the host’s behavior.

For the virus, the advantage of encouraging promiscuous behavior is easy to understand – but what about the castration? What does the virus have to win by making its hosts sterile?  This kind of “parasitic castration” can help viruses and parasites secure more of the host’s bodily resources for themselves without killing or effectively hurting their hosts.

But the virus has even more tricks up its sleeve. Most notably, it keeps them in good enough shape to attract a mate. Animals that are sick aren’t usually in the mood for mating. They don’t feel so good, they often lose body weight, their temperature might get higher, and so on. But even if they do try to mate, their potential partners often pick up on these cues and avoid them. That would spell disaster for a sexually transmitted disease – but the crickets with IIV-6/CrIV didn’t show any of these “sickness behaviors”. This could only mean one thing: the virus is blocking the fat body from producing signals which would be picked up by the immune system. This is one tricky virus!

At the moment, Adamo isn’t really sure how the virus does all this, but more research will follow, and the underlying mechanisms will be revealed.

To me, the way the virus managed to evolve in order to make all these changes in its host is simply remarkable – and yet another testimony of how powerful viruses can really be.

Scientific Reference.

 

 

 

Making insects taste like buttery popcorn

Last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggested that consuming edible insects can not only fight world hunger and help secure the global food supply, but also reduce greenhouse gases, and help save the environment.

worm 3

As far fetched and sci-fi that idea may sound, it’s not really as crazy as it sounds. 2 out of the 7 billion people in the world are already in cultures that traditionally consume insects, and this habit has already made its way into high-end dining. But can we really eat bugs on a global scale? According to Purdue University entomologist Tom Turpin, one of the report’s co-authors gives his insight on this matter:

“When we do our demos, we cook mealworms in some kind of cooking oil or even butter, and you just stir fry them and they taste a little bit like popcorn,” Turpin told Business Insider.

worm 2

Mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor, a species of darkling beetle, and they are among the few edible insects allowed in the US and in Europe. They have a lot of healthy fats and are high in Vitamins A and B (including B12), and can be easily raised on fresh oats, whole wheat bran or grain, with sliced potato or carrots and little pieces of apple as a water source. They also taste really good, apparently.

“We gave people mealworm meatballs, which in a blind taste test they preferred over regular meatballs,” van Huis said.

But they are not the only option. Tropical crickets, such as this one in Cambodia, are much larger, and they’re just packed with nutrients.

cricket

“One of my students did a study on greenhouse gases, and found that insects emit 100 times less greenhouse gases than conventional livestock,” van Huis said.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to have a taste of some worm meatballs, or some cricket stu? It’s tasty, and apparently, eco friendly.

Image sources.