Archive for May, 2017

Hooah! Could your next MRE contain bug meat?

This delicious solicitation for an upcoming DARPA project rolled …er, scuttled? across my desk last week. Now, I’m no stranger to unconventional protein sources with way too much exoskeleton, but this project might be food for thought if you plan to enlist.

Excerpts, emphasis mine:

Component: DARPA
Topic #: SB172-002
Title: Improved Mass Production of Beneficial Insects
Technology Areas: Bio Medical Chem / Bio Defense

OBJECTIVE: Develop innovative … approaches [for] insect colony production to be used for a variety of purposes in agricultural production or agricultural research (e.g., edible insects, natural enemies for biological control of agricultural pests, pathogens, or weeds, etc.).

[M]anaged insect production could play a large and important role in ensuring national security through stabilization of food security or the provisioning of other essential services delivered by insects.

Removing or reducing barriers to the efficient, economical, and effective production of valuable insect species could be used to improve agricultural production, deliver novel sources of nutrition, and protect necessary ecosystem services.

Phase III projects should address the challenge of encouraging human acceptance of insects and insect-derived products for human use.

Phase III (Military): The integration of insect-derived products or ecosystem services (e.g., into the Combat Feeding Directorate or the Armed Forces Pest Management Board) 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.

The full solicitation will be available at this link for a limited time, with all the buzzwords intact. For when it inevitably crawls shuffles off this mortal coil, the fulltext is reproduced below. DARPA awards are a great cross-pollination opportunity for small businesses; let’s just hope the award doesn’t go to some fly-by-night operation.

OBJECTIVE: Develop innovative engineering (e.g., automation or bio-sensing technologies), genetic, and/or genomic approaches to reduce the negative characteristics associated with insect colony production to be used for a variety of purposes in agricultural production or agricultural research (e.g., edible insects, natural enemies for biological control of agricultural pests, pathogens, or weeds, etc.). Projects focusing on mosquito production are discouraged from applying.

DESCRIPTION: There is a DoD need to improve production systems to produce insects for food or feed, agricultural release, or entomological research in an effort to mitigate threats to agriculture stability and develop alternative methods of producing nutrients or other bio-synthesized products. Insects currently provide crucial “ecosystem services” including natural pest suppression and pollination that are under increasing strain from environmental and anthropogenic disturbance. In contrast, advances in synthetic biology provide future opportunities to bolster these roles, or create entirely new insect-delivered services altogether. Achievement of these goals will require large numbers of specific insect species to be produced at a scale that is currently difficult because of system bottlenecks. If these bottlenecks could be overcome, managed insect production could play a large and important role in ensuring national security through stabilization of food security or the provisioning of other essential services delivered by insects.

Insects are the dominant animal group on the planet, and many species are accordingly vital to the provisioning of natural capital in support of the human economy. These so-called “ecosystem services” may be calculated as the value of the services lost if insects were to disappear. Using this method, Losey and Vaugh (2006) valued wild insect ecosystem services in the United States, including pollination, pest suppression, nutrient cycling, and recreational opportunities, at no less than $57 billion USD per year. Debates continue as to the accuracy and ethics of assigning values to natural services, but few can argue that a world without insects would struggle and perhaps fail to support human economies as we know them today.

The opportunity to positively affect large-scale managed insect production requires technological advances to overcome the bottlenecks created by the feeding media or substrate, labor, post-processing, quality control, and insufficient capital to generate efficiencies of scale (Cohen et al. 1999, Grenier 2009). Many insect species, especially those used for pest control, have relatively inflexible dietary demands in terms of nutritional quality, and some natural enemy species require only certain animal species as hosts. Insect bodies are fragile, and have generally been handled by humans during husbandry and packaging, a time-consuming and often expensive endeavor. Artificial rearing sometimes produces poor quality results; for example, it can yield insects with low nutritional value or that are unable to function in the environment upon release. Too often, existing solutions are expensive, thus triggering a vicious cycle where the insect product is not economical enough to attract the very capital expansion investment that would reduce the cost-per-unit to sustainable levels.

Accordingly, innovative solutions to these problems of rearing valuable insect species en masse would prove immensely valuable. Opportunities abound to improve rearing success on artificial diets, increase automation of husbandry and processing, improve quality control, and reduce cost-to-entry barriers of novel or existing technologies that overcome the most common insect rearing hurdles. Improved genetic, genomic, and proteomic understanding and editing tools allows enhanced diet optimization on both the production (nutritional) and consumption (insect) ends of the pipeline. Vast improvements in sensors, robotics, and computing have already allowed a nascent, automated plant-farming industry to form, and similar technologies could be developed or transferred to insect rearing and processing methods. Plummeting costs in an array of molecular techniques and specialized production platforms encourage a re-evaluation of formerly cost-prohibitive processes or a re-imagination of new ones.

Removing or reducing barriers to the efficient, economical, and effective production of valuable insect species could be used to improve agricultural production, deliver novel sources of nutrition, and protect necessary ecosystem services. Innovative engineering, bio-synthetic, and/or genetic/genomic strategies will be required to improve the output, quality, and viability of large-scale insect rearing needed to meet these goals.

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 engineering and genetic/genomic tools to these ends. Expected outcomes could be: rapid assessment and/or production of successful artificial diets; improved rearing efficiency and/or scale through the use of automation, strategies, or machines to rapidly assess insect quality or delicately handle live insects for post-processing; and materials or methods to speed return on investment during the scaling-up process.

PHASE I: Identify engineering objectives, molecular targets, or innovative strategies for improving production and performance of insects to improve large-scale rearing operations. Individual projects should address at least one of several challenges expected, which include: (1) artificial insect diet success, (2) increased efficiency and automation, (3) improved quality control and post-processing, (4) materials or methods to significantly improve rates of return on creating economies of scale. Example approaches could include the following:

• Artificial diets for difficult-to-produce or especially valuable beneficial insect species.
• Engineering advances in insect rearing facilities to increase energy, materials, and/or labor efficiency.
• Methods, sensors, or machines to improve insect quality and reduce post-processing time or losses.
• Novel, alternative, or streamlined solutions to especially costly insect rearing facility problems.

The key deliverable for Phase I will be the demonstration of a proof of concept that the selected challenge has been overcome and can be scaled to a larger format. These demonstrations should be performed in repeated experiments in small colonies (i.e., tens to hundreds of individuals) on single or multiple insect species where significant improvements in insect rearing success, efficiency, end product, or cost-per-unit can be shown to have significantly improved through relevant analysis.

For this topic, DARPA will accept proposals for work and cost up to $225,000 for Phase I. The preferred structure is a $175,000, 12-month base period, and a $50,000, 4-month option period. Alternative structures may be accepted if sufficient rationale is provided.

PHASE II: The small-scale, small-colony approach taken in Phase I will be transferred to and implemented in a large-scale (i.e., hundreds to thousands of individuals) insect-products-sourcing platform. The goal of Phase II is the integration of technologies used to increase the output of insect rearing facilities through the success of artificial diets, automation, quality control and post-processing, or reduced cost per unit. Therefore, the deliverable for Phase II is the demonstration of a large-scale insect production system utilizing integrated engineering, genetic, or materials 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 and eventual commercialization of the anticipated product.

PHASE III DUAL-USE APPLICATIONS: Phase III (Commercial): The technologies developed in Phases I and II will be integrated into a fundamental platform to improve the production of economically or environmentally valuable insect species. 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 technologies to improve production. In addition to the development of a plan for regulatory oversight, if applicable, Phase III projects should address the challenge of encouraging human acceptance of insects and insect-derived products for human use.

Phase III (Military): The integration of insect-derived products or ecosystem services (e.g., into the Combat Feeding Directorate or the Armed Forces Pest Management Board) 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.

REFERENCES:

1. Chambers, Darrell L. 1977. Quality Control in Mass Rearing. Annual Review of Entomology 22:289-308
2. Clarke, Geoffrey M., Leslie J. McKenzie. 1992. Fluctuating Asymmetry as a Quality Control Indicator for Insect Mass Rearing Processes. Economic Entomology 85(6):2045-2050.
3. Cohen, Allen C., Donald A. Nordlund, and Rebecca A. Smith. 1999. Mass Rearing of entomophagous insects and predaceous mites: are bottlenecks biological, engineering, economic, or cultural? Biocontrol 20(3):85N-90N.
4. Grenier, Simon. 2009. In vitro rearing of entomophagous insects – Past and future trends: a mini review. Bulletin of Insectology 62(1):1-6.
5. Losey, John E., Mace Vaughn. 2006. The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects. BioScience 56(4):311-323.
6. Riddick, Eric W. 2009. Benefits and limitations of factitious prey and artificial diets on life parameters of predatory beetles, bugs, and lacewings: a mini-review. Biocontrol 54:325-339.
KEYWORDS: insect production, automation, molecular biology, beneficial insects, ecosystem services