You are here

Genetic/Genomic Approaches to Improve Insect Production for Human Use



PROPOSALS ACCEPTED: Phase I and DP2. Please see the 16.3 DoD Program Solicitation and the DARPA 16.3 Direct to Phase II Instructions for DP2 requirements and proposal instructions.

TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Materials/Processes

OBJECTIVE: Develop genetic or genomic approaches to reduce the negative characteristics associated with insect colony maintenance or recovery of insect-derived products and demonstrate genetic modification of insects to improve the nutritional quality of final food, feed, or pharma products.

DESCRIPTION: There is a DoD need to explore the utility of insect-derived products as a buffer against potential future instability resulting from disruptions to traditional food and resource supply chains. The use of insects for sustainable production of food, feed, and pharma products could also potentially be applied in far-forward deployed operating situations, and might ultimately even be an enabler for space exploration. Insects are already a reliable source of food, feed, and pharma products for human use, but at times can be difficult to exploit due to either pathogen outbreaks in colonies during rearing or contamination of organic and inorganic materials during processing. At the same time, genetic and genomic approaches to alter expression systems in insects are becoming available and can be used to improve the value of insect-derived products. Immense opportunities now exist to drastically improve the utility of insect production systems regardless of the intended insect-derived end product.

Food security is quickly becoming a global security issue due to increasing human populations and consumption demands. Several factors could lead to a possible catastrophic decline in food availability in the near future, including climate change, energy shortages, and decreased agricultural production due to reduced soil fertility and water availability, and greater numbers and distribution patterns of pests and plant pathogens. Identification of reliable alternatives for traditional foods—and in particular alternative sources of protein—could help meet future nutritional demands, improve food security and bolster geopolitical stability. New technologies to support these alternatives must lend themselves to large-scale implementation if they are to be feasible, cost-effective, and ecofriendly.

Insects offer one potential solution to current and future food shortages and nutrient deficiencies. Although 80% of the world’s population regularly consumes insects for food, this is a relatively new concept for the Western world. Production of traditional protein sources such as beef, pork, chicken, and fish is expensive, resource intensive, and not sustainably scalable to a growing population. Insect sourcing for food products that can be consumed directly by humans is an alternative to traditional meat production; insect-derived feeds could also be used for aquaculture or livestock production to reduce the ecological footprint of these food sources. Insects are highly nutritious relative to traditional protein-rich foods. For instance, milled cricket flour (a popular food additive) contains 31g of protein and 8g of fat per 200 calories compared to 22g of protein and 15g of fat for the same 200 calories in beef.

Insects have also been used to produce non-food products for human use. The use of insects for production of silk and dyes is well known, but other uses of insect-derived products have been identified more recently. For example, certain insects produce powerful antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) such as drosocin, apidaecin 1b, and pyrrhocoricin, which can be recovered and purified for human use. Additionally, insect germlines could be modified to produce high levels of desired compounds such as retinol or ascorbic acid for delivery to populations with diets deficient in these nutrients. The recent discovery that chitin-based products can be used to improve whole-blood clotting time and plasma recalcification time has led to the development of insect-derived products like chitin, chitosan, partially N-acetylated chitosan, N,O-carboxymethylchitosan, N-sulfated chitosan, and N-(2-hydroxy)propyl-3-trimethylammonium chitosan chloride as potentially more cost-effective alternatives to existing commercial blood products.

Gene technologies could be used to improve production of edible insect products or to alleviate losses due to biotic or abiotic threats. Molecular approaches to these issues will be an integral part of increasing general output in these systems in the future and could be used to improve quality of product and ease of processing, and minimize loss of recovered product.

This SBIR topic seeks approaches to identify and address issues associated with large-scale insect rearing and/or the improvement of production outcomes. We encourage applications that use emerging genetic/genomic tools to these ends. Expected outcomes could be the management of viral or bacterial pathogens through up- or down-regulation of genes that exist in the host or pathogen, improvement of colony insect populations to adapt to altered environments, or the manipulation of pathways that provide products for human use.

PHASE I: Identify molecular targets for improving production and performance of insects that will ultimately be produced in large-scale operations. Individual projects could address at least one of several challenges expected, which include: (1) refining pathogen management, (2) improving quality and quantity of desirable insect organic materials that exist, (3) reducing or eliminating the production of undesirable products, (4) addition of genes to produce desirable products that did not previously exist in the insect.

Integrate genetic modifications into systems (transgenic or paratransgenic systems are acceptable) to increase the nutrient output of insects being produced for food sourcing. The addition of pathways associated with vitamin A, C, D, and K are especially desirable.

Identify a diverse group of insect species that process animal/human, food, and plant waste for energy and biomass recovery. This would not have to result directly into human food sourcing (i.e., primary production of food production); rather, the potential for improving food stock production for fish and livestock production would be appropriate, with humans as secondary consumers.

The key deliverable for Phase I will be the demonstration of proof of concept that the selected challenge has been overcome and can be scaled to a larger format. These demonstrations can be performed in repeated experiments in small colonies on multiple insect species where alteration of insect-derived end products can be shown through chemical analysis.

PHASE II: The small-scale, small-colony approach taken in Phase I will be transferred to and implemented in a large-scale insect products-sourcing platform. The goal of Phase II is the integration of technologies used to produce insects for food, feed, or pharma. Therefore, the deliverable for Phase II is the demonstration of a large-scale insect production system utilizing integrated gene technologies. Communication with the proper regulatory agencies will be a key component to determine how these technologies can be safely and ethically monitored for proper use.

Direct to Phase II: Potential proposers with existing technologies that are ready to be implemented in a large-scale format are encouraged to apply for direct to Phase II. The proposal should clearly describe how the objectives of Phase I have already been attained.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Phase III (Commercial): The genetic/genomic technologies developed in Phases I and II will be integrated into a fundamental platform to improve the production of insect-derived products. These integrated technologies will serve as the foundation for further improvement. Phase III will be a demonstration of a fully adopted system that utilizes two or more gene technologies to improve production. These improvements must also be ecologically sustainable. In addition to the development of a plan for regulatory oversight, Phase III projects should address the challenge of encouraging human acceptance of insects and insect-derived products as food.

Phase III (Military): The integration of insect-derived food products into the Combat Feeding Directorate is a potential option for technology transition. The objective of Phase III (Military) will be to determine feasibility, utility, and acceptance levels of these products and production systems by military personnel, especially in deployment scenarios.


  • Bukkens, S. G. F., & Paoletti, M. G. (2005). Insects in the human diet: nutritional aspects. Ecological implications of minilivestock: Potential of insects, rodents, frogs and snails, 545-577.
  • Durst, P. B., Johnson, D. V., Leslie, R. N., & Shono, K. (2010). Forest insects as food: humans bite back. RAP publication.
  • Gahukar, R. T. (2011). Entomophagy and human food security. International Journal of Tropical Insect Science, 31(03), 129-144.
  • Janvikul, W., Uppanan, P., Thavornyutikarn, B., Krewraing, J., & Prateepasen, R. (2006). In vitro comparative hemostatic studies of chitin, chitosan, and their derivatives. Journal of applied polymer science, 102(1), 445-451.
  • Katayama, N., Yamashita, M., Wada, H., & Mitsuhashi, J. (2005). Entomophagy as part of a space diet for habitation on Mars. The Journal of Space Technology and Science, 21(2), 2_27-2_38.
  • Raubenheimer, D., & Rothman, J. M. (2013). Nutritional ecology of entomophagy in humans and other primates. Annual Review of Entomology, 58, 141-160.

KEYWORDS: Insect-derived products, genetic engineering, RNAi, gene regulation



US Flag An Official Website of the United States Government