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How an insect-based feed can improve fish immune systems

Biotech Tebrio has developed a protein ingredient rich in amino acids that boosts the development of juveniles at a critical time in their growth. :oProtein is a 100% natural product obtained from the tenebrio molitor insect and used in the manufacture of aquaculture feed for freshwater and marine species. Among many other advantages, it reduces significantly the use of processed fishmeal, which makes it a sustainable alternative that helps reduce overfishing.

The aquaculture industry has long been looking for new sources of feed to reduce dependence on processed fishmeal. And among the alternatives being considered, insects are emerging as one of the most sustainable and beneficial options available.

Last March, Tebrio presented at the Aquafuture fair in Santiago de Compostela (Spain) a revolutionary product, extracted from the mealworm, which strengthens the immune system of fish during their growth stage. And also improves their metabolic activity as it is digestible by more than 90%.

This product, which Tebrio markets under the name :oProtein, is being analyzed in the scientific research program Acuisost, an initiative of the Acuiplus cluster in which Tebrio participates. The objective of this research is to promote the sustainability of aquaculture through the implementation of nutritional strategies based on new ingredients and technological additives for fish feed.

Acuisost has taken as a reference sample rainbow trout for freshwater farming and sea bream in the marine environment. And in both cases, the results point out that fish fed with insects develop more robustly, show a lower degree of stress and are more resistant to the pathogens they find in the water, which means they need fewer antibiotics.

Impact on metabolism

It has also been concluded that insect meal in aquaculture feed has a significant impact on the metabolic activity of the species studied. Specifically, it reduces the consumption of energy that the animals need to synthesize amino acids and proteins in their growth stage, which indirectly improves the immune system.

The protein ingredient developed by Tebrio has a crude protein concentration of over 72%. And its ratio between digestible protein and crude protein by pepsic digestion is over 90%. Laboratory results also show that this product has less than 7% fat and less than 5% ash.

:oProtein is designed to promote the development of fry and juveniles at a critical time in their growth, because in addition to being rich in amino acids, it has a much better oleic profile than any other alternative to fishmeal. We could say that in the aquaculture sector it is a component equivalent to those we use in the formula milk that humans give to newborns.

Immune boosting

Another study carried out by Greek and Italian scientists from the Hellenic Center for Marine Research and the Universities of Turin and Naples points in the same direction: the insect diet influences the growth of fish and also their immune system.

In this case, the research was carried out on juvenile sea bass fed for six weeks with mealworm protein. Broadly speaking, the study concludes that this ingredient added to the feed had significant anti-inflammatory effects in the population analyzed. And that both the antibacterial activity of lysozyme and the inhibition of trypsin were significantly higher. This implies that these insects have an immunostimulant effect and promote antiparasitic activity. In other words, they increase the resistance of fish to certain diseases.

The same is true for the Pacific white shrimp. This species is one of the most commercialized in aquaculture worldwide. And in captivity it has a high rate of early mortality. The study conducted in 2019 by Bangkok University revealed that tenebrio molitor meal improved growth and feed conversion of shrimp. And that the optimum performance was achieved by replacing 50% of the fish meals included in the feed.

On an immunological level, the population under study had a higher survival rate to early death syndrome and a lower rate of immunosuppression. Most likely due to insect chitin and other biofuels that counteract pathogenic infections.

Finally, another research conducted with juvenile catfish reached the same conclusion. Four diets were formulated with 9, 18 and 27 grams of tenebrio molitor meal per 100 grams of feed. And those specimens fed with at least 50% of insects developed a significantly higher resistance to the bacterium Edwardsiella ictaluri, responsible for enteric septicemia.

A sustainable and natural alternative

Traditionally, the aquaculture sector has used fishmeal as the main source of protein to produce its feed, but due to the overexploitation of the marine environment, this alternative alone will soon become unsustainable. Mainly because to obtain one kilo of fish in captivity requires four kilos of marine catches, which are then converted into feed.

The other existing option until now was vegetable meals, which are much cheaper and more abundant than processed fish meal. However, these have a very lower amino acid profile than the protein offered by insects.

Aquaculture is one of the activities that has brighter future, because it can still continue to grow in a sustainable way. Nevertheless, we need to introduce new products that guarantee its long-term sustainability, since we cannot depend only on offshore catches.

According to data provided by the United Nations, in 15 years there will be a serious food problem in the world if we do not change our production model at a global level, since the population will have doubled and we will not have more resources than those that already exist. Hence, the importance of identifying sustainable alternatives and acting as soon as possible.