Changes in nutrient composition and gene expression in growing mealworms (Tenebrio molitor)
Insects are of high interest as a sustainable source of nutrients to be included in the food production system. The larvae of Tenebrio molitor, commonly known as yellow mealworms (MW), have a high protein content, which means potential applications in the animal feed and human food sectors. However, previous reports have shown considerable variability in the nutrient composition of mealworms, which may in part, be due to harvesting at different developmental stages. A better understanding of the regulation of composition during development would potentially facilitate future attempts to manipulate nutrient content, perhaps through gene editing, to maximize commercial value. In the present study, mealworms were harvested at various time points within a 24 day period leading up to the start of pupation. At the earliest time points (between days -24 and -17), a 44% increase in fat content was seen, which was maintained throughout the rest of development. By day -12, protein content fell by 12%, a change that was also maintained. Throughout development there was a change in fatty acid composition, with a shift from oleic acid being the major fatty acid at day -24, to linoleic acid being predominant at later time points. In an attempt to better understand the genetic basis of these changes, an analysis of the transcriptome was undertaken. In the absence of a specific annotated genome for the mealworm, an Affymetrix GeneChip microarray for Drosophila was utilized. The hybridisation of RNA extracted from five developmental stages (larvae and pupae) showed differential gene expression; and some potential orthologs were identified which may be involved in regulating nutrient composition during development. However, we were unable to identify a significant proportion of the most highly regulated genes, highlighting the need for a fully annotated mealworm genome.