#522 Thank the cockroach

Fried cockroaches in Thailand

Fried cockroaches in a Thai market, via Wikimedia Commons

When I lived in a cheap apartment in Washington, D.C., one summer, I learned to turn on the light before padding across the floor to the bathroom. That gave the cockroaches time to scurry out of my path.

I had never lived with cockroaches before and was startled when they would appear on the kitchen counter to see what I was cooking for dinner. Every two weeks the exterminator arrived to shoot the building full of poison. Cockroach numbers dwindled just long enough for the survivors to reproduce.

What I did not appreciate at the time is the important role they play in the ecosystem. They are fantastic composters, making nutrient-rich soil out of the trees that die in the forest, the food we humans waste, and the manure the earth’s creatures leave behind.

What is more, they have brains loaded with natural antibiotics. In “The Healing Power of Cockroaches,”  David DiSalvo writes:

The next time you step on a cockroach, think about this: The tiny brain you just crushed is loaded with so many antibacterial molecules that it makes prescription drugs look like sugar pills.

He cites research from the University of Nottingham that “found when MRSA is pitted against the antibiotics in a cockroach brain, the bacteria don’t stand a chance. The cockroach molecules wipe out 90 percent of MRSA bacteria on contact.”

I have no intention of welcoming them into my home and would be squeamish about eating them. Still, I think of them differently these days than I did when they were scurrying across my floor and checking out my cooking. Back then, I only saw them as pests. They still earn that designation, but they deserve some respect as well.

Cockroaches remind me that all of the planet’s creatures play an important role, no matter how small, and that gives me hope.


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Naomi Baltuck - December 27, 2012

Great post, Cathryn. Do you know whether they are actually finding a way to use cockroach brains to develop new antibiotics?

    admin - December 27, 2012

    Researchers are looking at the possibility (thus my empathy for the cockroaches who’ll die for science), but I didn’t find results. Given our overuse of antibiotics, we need some new options.

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