Bless Your Cockroach Overlords

Not all organisms have the luxury of being cute and fluffy; sometimes you’re cursed with a creepy scaly body covered with gross, thick hair, unnervingly beady eyes, and a general character that leaves onlookers with a disturbing crawling sensation up their spine.

A spider darting along your feet can entice an ungraceful flailing leap onto a nearby chair, the topic of internal parasites can leave a squirmy feeling in the base of your stomach, and the very mention of microscopic animals crawling all over your body can cause an uncomfortable itching sensation – but if I were to tell you that these rejected and often forgotten creatures benefitted you in so many ways, would you treat them any differently? Would you care? Probably not, but I’m going to try convince you why you should love the critters living around your flat anyway.

Biomimicry is an approach to invention which uses nature as a muse. Research into the form and function of different organisms has not only helped biologists to understand the lives of our fellow earth habitants, but also inspired scientists around the world to implement these uniquely evolved features into human lives, mainly through technology or medicine. Whether it’s the tissue piercing parasitic worm Pomphorhynchus laevis sparking new methods of skin grafts, or the light yet strong aspects of spider webs leading to advances in medical tape, people’s least favourite organisms have proved to be rather fantastic inspirations for scientists, so as a budding scientist I’m going to tell you about my favourites.  

People’s reactions to cockroaches usually vary – I say vary, an ear-piercing screech is often the main reaction.  Scientists, however, love them, and honestly so should you. Cockroaches are awesome. Not just awesome like a new Star Wars trailer, I mean awe-inspiring. We all know the unnerving fact about how cockroaches could endure a nuclear apocalypse, so it’s fair to say their survival abilities are pretty on point. Scientists couldn’t help but wonder why, so, doing what they do best, they experimented and found that cockroaches can produce their own powerful antibiotics which help keep them revitalised and healthy enough to scuttle all day around your dank bathrooms. When cracking open and delving into the cockroaches brain, at least nine molecules were found that aided in resistance to some pretty nasty infections including E.coli and the superbug Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Seeing that these found molecules didn’t harm human cells, it’s hopeful that these will soon be utilised as treatments against these troublesome strains.

As well as antibiotics, the engineering ingenuity of cockroach legs has propelled leaps and bounds in the advancement of prosthetic limbs. The springiness of roaches’ legs have stimulated research in the development of a flexible grip in robotic hands; observing the ease of cockroaches scuttling over surfaces has helped developers produce a hand that can effectively glide along and wrap around desired objects, minimising the prior clumsiness of earlier models. Thanks to our often unwelcomed houseguests, a future with smoothly moving robots swiftly invading the world and wiping out human civilisation seems in sight – yay, cockroaches!

Now, let’s talk about tardigrades. Otherwise known as water bears due to their adorably squidgy appearance, tardigrades have a simply brilliant talent for survival: whether it’s extreme temperatures, pressure, radiation levels, or reduced concentrations of oxygen, these little micro-animals will survive. Usually organisms can’t deal when put under stressors like these – heat will promote proteins to unfold, pressure solidifies the membrane of cells, and radiation completely tears up DNA – basically, your body just gives in. However when other organisms’ cells seem beyond repair, tardigrades possess a nifty regenerating ability the Doctor himself would be jealous of.

Tardigrades can produce heaps of antioxidants and then just curl themselves up into a state of suspended animation: this process is called anhydrobiosis. With nearly all their water dispersed and their metabolic rate reduced to 0.01% of their normal state, they appear effectively dead, but they’re not. With an ability to remain in this state for years (even centuries!), all tardigrades need is a little boost of rehydration, and their cells and DNA will start fixing themselves up with the help of those antioxidants.

So how has science implemented these little wonders? Well, drawing inspiration from their cocoon like survival instincts, a company called Biomatrica are now able to conserve live vaccines for up to 6 months without refrigeration by wrapping them up in a glassy film made of sugars – rehydration is all that’s needed to trigger them. In the past, half of all vaccines were lost in the transportation process due to refrigerator malfunctioning – now that heat invasion is no longer a risk, vaccines can be successfully transported all over the world to vulnerable populations in tropical countries. Needless to say, these tiny organisms are pretty special not just in their biological prowess but also in their remarkable impact across the globe, and I bet most people didn’t even know about these poor little guys.

So, if you survive the nuclear/ robotic apocalypse, when you bow down to your cockroach and tardigrade overlords, remember to thank them for inspiring pioneering science.  

[Michaela Barton]

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