By Joe Naiman
Village News Correspondent 

Genetics conference includes insect farming session


Last updated 4/17/2019 at 11:43am

The farming of insects can produce bugs not only for human cuisine but also for livestock feed, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, vitamins, and other uses. The International Conference on the Status of Plant and Animal Genome Research which is held annually at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego has sessions on genetic research to improve breeding yield, disease and parasite resistance, and flavor, and the 2019 PAG conference Jan. 12-16 included the Jan. 16 Farmed Insects to Feed Future Populations workshop.

All Things Bugs founder and president Aaron Dossey led the workshop and also gave a presentation titled "Development of Insects for Food, Feed, Pharma, and other Valuable Applications". Beta Hatch founder and chief executive officer Virginia Emery was the speaker for "The Genetics and Microbiome of Tenebrio molitor, an Insect Bred for Animal Feed" (Tenebrio molitor is a beetle which is a mealworm in its larval stage). Marce Lorenzen of North Carolina State University addressed her Tribolium red flour beetle research in "Lessons from Tribolium: Transferring Genetic Technologies to other Coleoptera". The CRISPR genetic modification technique was the focus of "CRISPR-Cas9 in the Mealworm Tenebrio molitor for Improvement as a Crop", which was discussed by Clay Chu of All Things Bugs.

"Like anything we can aspire to make them better," Dossey said. "We think we can make them better."

The breeding objectives goals of the genome research include faster developmental time, increased mass, and more offspring.

"We probably want to work closely with farmers," Dossey said.

On the scientific end the future work includes genetic sequencing and identification of diseases which could threaten insect farming operations.

More than 50 companies in North America and 80 in Europe offer food products with insects as a key ingredient.

"The industry is growing," Emery said. "We see an emerging opportunity."

All Things Bugs produces Griopro cricket powder, and according to the company's Website a 20-gram serving has 13.4 grams of protein and 1.32 grams of fiber.

Some insects are grown at Pacific Animal Productions in Fallbrook. Pacific Animal Productions provides the edible insects exhibit at the San Diego County Fair. "It's amazing that San Diego has embraced it," said Karla Majewski, who is the owner of Pacific Animal Productions and the curator of the edible insects exhibit.

Because most insect farms are indoors if not in outdoor enclosed areas such restrictions as climate and terrain are not factors. "Insects can be grown virtually anywhere," Emery said.

Dossey added that the farming of insects is not limited to the ground level. "You can go vertical," he said.

Emery added that bacterial contamination of food nutrients can be broken down by insects. "There's a real big opportunity here," she said.

"That's real exciting to me that it's not just a futuristic idea," Majewski said.

The breeding program development research Beta Hatch has performed on the yellow mealworm investigated phenotypes (observable traits) and their heritability, genotypes (genetic makeup) of 13 strains sourced from farms around the United States, and sequences from the microbiome of mealworms feeding on several feedstocks. (Microbiomes are micro-organisms in a specific environment; the research included whether microbiomes change with the strain of mealworm or with a different diet for the mealworm.)

"Breeding performance is the main trait as far as the larvae we're interested in," Emery said.

"Animal feed is a cornerstone of the food supply chain and yet there's a lot of need for some change," Emery said. "We have been working to develop a process that is reliable and affordable and efficient."

The mealworm is Beta Hatch's first crop. "They're a super bug. You can grow them year round virtually anywhere," Emery said. "We don't need to give them direct water for them to be able to grow."

Farming of insects includes the egg, larva, pupa, and adult lifecycle. "The cultivation can get quite complex," Emery said.

That lifecycle also includes the genetic and other research being performed. "We need to look at the whole lifecycle," Emery said.

Seventeen key performance indicators were used for the Beta Hatch research. Beta Hatch found that one strain of mealworm could be produced for 55 percent less cost than other strains on the market.

"It's a really exciting time for the industry," Emery said. "It's kind of a Wild West. There's a lot of work to do."

Tribolium castaneum, or the red flour beetle, was the first beetle to be sequenced. Lorenzen has been working on Tribolium genetics since the 1990s. She now expects red flour beetles to be on the market within two years in the absence of regulatory hurdles. "Over the last year we've made enormous progress," she said.

The current genetic modification activity involves the mealworm's eye color, which does not affect its health.

"I thought that was pretty interesting," said Majewski, who did not attend the PAG conference but was informed of the session.

"I think any insect talk is good and it's going to attract interest," Dossey said.

Dossey noted that insect farming not only helps the food supply but also the security of farmers. "Insects I think are very secure because they are very prolific," he said. "You can switch to an entirely different insect and be right back up and running."

Insects are human cuisine in approximately 180 countries. "We're one of them that's a holdout," Majewski said.

Pacific Animal Productions provides its edible insect exhibit, including live insects and non-insect bugs, at between 15 and 20 locations throughout the United States on an annual basis. The edible insect exhibit is in the California Grown barn at the San Diego County Fair and will return to this year's fair which will begin May 31 and conclude July 4.

"It's something that people are really inquisitive about," Majewski said.


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