How Gene-Edited Insects Are Providing Food, Fuel and Waste Disposal

Insects have been making commercial inroads as feed for poultry, fish, pigs, cattle and even pet food, though, for now, it remains a niche product. Biotech tools, however, are allowing breeders to ramp up insect production, and with new investment, their approach is gaining traction.

In the last several years, companies producing black soldier flies (BSF, or Hermetia illucens) and mealworms (Tenebrio molitor) have raised forged ahead, paving the way for insect products to reach European and Asian markets. Insect factories are expanding, and some companies are applying gene editing to improve protein quality and speed up hatching and growth. If the momentum continues to build, the insect protein market is forecast to grow $1.14 billion by 2027.

In Israel, a consortium of insect-based animal feed companies backed by the Israel Innovation Authority was set up in January, bringing them together with researchers using machine learning and fly genomics to optimize and scale up BSF production and the insects’ nutritional profile. The companies — Entoprotech, FreezeM, Ambar, Shachar, NRGene, NeoManna, BugEra and Rafael Feed Mills — are joined by academic researchers from five academic institutes, all of whom are editing genes in the fly genome sequence to enhance breeding.

Part of the consortium is FreezeM, based in Nachshonim. The startup was set up by three Weizmann Institute of Technology doctoral graduates, who developed a technology that induces neonatal larvae into suspended animation to extend shelf life for shipment purposes. It is a “paused larvae” stage obtained through environmental conditions, says Yuval Gilad, FreezeM co-founder and CEO, and just as with hibernation, it is reversible.

FreezeM has also turned to CRISPR–Cas9 to improve the nutritional content of BSF strains. The company has deployed 400 CRISPR–Cas9 guide RNAs to target about 150 genes that control metabolism, which yielded strains with bigger larvae, a longer larval period and increased resilience under stress.

One of the genes they’ve edited is a key regulator of molting from larva to pupa, which, when tweaked, yields larvae 50 percent larger than an unedited one. Other genes worth targeting would be those controlling chitin, the hard polysaccharide that makes up insects’ exoskeleton. A reduction in chitin would prove valuable for optimizing aquaculture feed, says Idan Alyagor, FreezeM co-founder and chief technology officer.

Another Israeli company, BugEra, a startup from Ben Gurion University, is genetically engineering strains of black soldier for use as biofuel. Fly maggots are rich in lipids that could provide a sustainable alternative to crop oils. Another advantage is that BSF farming could tap into circular economy opportunities. “BSF can be reared on different substrates, like food waste and manure,” says Yoav Etgar, CEO and co-founder of the Beer Sheva-based biotech. Fly oil, however, has yet to take off commercially because, so far, the market has leaned towards feed production, says Anna Melkov, BugEra chief technology officer and co-founder.

To overcome this bias, BugEra has developed a BSF strain with double the lipid content, using the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technique to modify genes involved in fat metabolism. Because identifying flies with desirable mutations is time intensive and can become a bottleneck, BugEra developed a technique that allows DNA extraction and screening of hundreds of individuals per day. The startup also expects to add a phenotypic marker such as eye color to accelerate screening further, as well as gene downregulation techniques, such as RNA interference (RNAi), to broaden the characteristics of BSF lines.

Meanwhile, the UK insect genetics company Beta Bugs focuses on selecting strains with the best traits for breeding. The company scientists at the facility, located at the Roslin Innovation Centre near Edinburgh, start by collecting physical and environmental insect parameters from their insect populations, selecting for increased larval biomass, faster development and greater number of eggs laid. This approach allows them to disentangle favorable genetics from possible environmental variables: “We can be assured that our insects’ performance is increasing not because they received more food, or were reared in a higher temperature, but because we are improving the underlying genetics,” says Thomas Farrugia, the company’s CEO. Beta Bugs ships BSF lines to customers in the insect farming industry.

To support the industry’s expansion, Beta Bugs recently co-founded the UK’s Insect Bioconversion Association, in conjunction with BSF company Better Origin and other commercial insect producers. Their goal is to raise awareness of the role insect farming can play in reducing food waste while providing high-quality animal feed, oils and fertilizer. They also work to expedite the regulatory pathway through engagement with the U.K. government.

A type of beetle larva commonly called a mealworm is also part of the surging interest in bug farms. Beta Hatch produces mealworms (the larvae of Tenebrio molitor) for use as feed in aquaculture and farm animal nutrition, as well as pet food. “The potential for insects in the food supply chain is immense,” says entomologist Virginia Emery, who is founder and CEO of Beta Hatch. Beyond providing high-quality nutrients for animal feed and plant fertilizer, larvae in the Tenebrionidae are remarkable for their digestive powers, which include plastic waste biodegradation. “The only known way to biodegrade Styrofoam is in the gut of a mealworm,” says Emery, adding that worms can digest and eliminate harmful mycotoxins and process all kinds of waste.

Beta Hatch deploys genomic tools to raise their bugs in the most efficient and scalable way possible. Through selective breeding, the scientists map key traits such as weight and development time, tracking their heritability, and monitoring the genomic diversity of their breeding stock. In addition, Beta Hatch is developing a CRISPR proof-of-concept toolkit to produce custom proteins in their insects.

Another mealworm farm with products on the market is Ÿnsect. Its protein ingredient is already in U.S. luxury dog food brand Bernie’s, among others, and is exported around the world for use in pet food or to feed fish, to fertilize plants and for human consumption. The Paris-based company was founded in 2011 by four scientists and environmental activists with a vision to produce an alternative, sustainable product for feed and food. They set up vertical insect farms powered by robotics, each yielding several tons of mealworm products a year, and in 2021, the European food safety authority deemed mealworms safe for human consumption.

In June 2023 Ÿnsect launched the world’s first high-density gene chip for insect breeding. The chip contains 679,205 single-nucleotide polymorphisms, covering more than 99 percent of the mealworm’s coding regions. It can help scientists identify genes linked to traits of interest, such as growth performance, reproduction, or disease resistance. The company plans to make the new chip, called AxiomYNS_Mol1, available to the wider scientific community to help users decipher biological pathways, answer fundamental questions or improve selection of mealworm lines with desired traits.

All in all, with the work of these companies and genetic editing tools, insect farming is gaining ground in the global food economy as an alternative source of animal protein.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on August 11, 2023.

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