For centuries, farmers have bred livestock and crops for desirable traits such as faster growth, better taste, and resistance to disease. Now, a new kind of rancher is following in their footsteps: mealworm breeders. Last week, France-based Ÿnsect announced it will spend nearly $5 million on the world’s first large-scale initiative to use state-of-the-art genetics for breeding beetle larvae and other insects that can be used as animal feed, fertilizer—and even food for people.
“We’re talking about accelerating the ability to use the genomes of millions of insects” for selective breeding, says insect geneticist Christine Picard of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, who is not involved in the effort. The new program, she notes, should help scientists untangle the often complex mix of genes involved in commercially valuable traits such as faster reproduction and more efficient food consumption. “The sheer volume [of genetic information] that they can get through might be able to address that.”
Ÿnsect, founded in 2011, is one of the world’s largest insect ranchers. It operates two “vertical farms”—one in France, the other in the Netherlands—that produce billions of yellow mealworm beetle larvae (Tenebrio molitor) and other insects every year. The bugs are processed into powders and oils used in pet food, fish and farm feeds, and textured tofulike “meats” for human consumption. The company also sells the shed shells of the growing mealworms as fertilizer.
Last year, Ÿnsect worked with outside researchers to sequence and publish a nearly complete genome of the yellow mealworm. Now, it will use those genetic data to hunt for traits that could be improved through selective breeding, says Thomas Lefebvre, an R&D scientist at the company. Scientists will use a strategy known as genomic selection, which involves using a large swath of genetic markers to identify insects likely to produce offspring with desirable traits. The approach offers a “more resilient and more informed way” to pick the adult beetles used for breeding, Lefebvre says. And although it’s a standard operating procedure in plant and livestock breeding, it’s a novel approach to industrial insect rearing.
Ÿnsect breeders should be able to “select animals that have the ‘best’ genetics, and thereby improve different characteristics,” says Dennis Oonincx, an entomologist at Wageningen University & Research who is not involved in the project. The company says it has already identified a strain of buffalo worm (Alphitobius diaperinus), a smaller cousin of the yellow mealworm, that grows 25% faster than related variants.
Better insect ranching could have benefits for the environment and human health. For example, nearly one-quarter of the world’s commercially caught fish are currently used to feed shrimp, salmon, and other animals raised in aquaculture operations—a practice many researchers have concluded is ecologically damaging and wasteful. Insects make up a large part of many fishes’ natural diets and using mealworms could reduce pressure on wild fish stocks and make more fish available to people.
Farmed insects could also go straight to human plates. People have practiced entomophagy, or bug eating, for millennia, and some government agencies—including the European Food Safety Authority—have already deemed yellow mealworms safe for human consumption. The grubs are rich in nutrients, containing up to 25 grams of protein for every 100 grams of worm, about the same as beef. And raising mealworms produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than other forms of animal production, Oonincx says. Farmers also need far less land to produce 1 kilogram of protein, compared with conventional livestock farming, he notes.
Ÿnsect slims down its operations even more by breeding bugs in vertical facilities. In each farm, the worms are reared in robot-automated trays stacked several stories tall, features that save energy and space. It is now completing a third new rearing facility in northern France. When finished, it will be 35 meters high, which the company claims will make it the “world’s largest vertical farm.”
One question surrounding Ÿnsect’s initiative, Picard says, is whether the company will share the data gleaned from its program with the greater scientific community. “This is going to benefit them and their investors, but will they share it?” she asks. Lefebvre says the company will likely seek patents that would describe its high-throughput trait-identification strategies, potentially enabling other researchers and companies to try to improve on them.
Another issue, Picard adds, is whether all the genetic honing will overcome consumers’ potential aversion to bug eating. It might all come down to marketing, she says, noting that “lobster used to be the insect of the sea, and now it’s part of haute cuisine.”