Cockroaches Are Built for Our Garbage

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Cockroach have as many genes as humans and are designed to thrive on the mess we make of the planet. Thithawat.S/Shutterstock

In an ever-wasteful world, it’s hard to imagine any living being more better dressed for success than the cockroach. And, in a new study, scientists say it’s all about those genes.

Researchers from the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology in Shanghai, have identified specialized DNA that makes even the foulest, filthiest dustbins a Disneyland for roaches.

Along the way, scientists mapped the genetic code for the American cockroach, or Periplaneta americana, discovering it has a whopping 20,000 genes. That’s about the same size as the genetic code for humans.

Only, of course, we weren’t programmed to prosper in the rotting rind of a watermelon at the bottom of a heap of moldy newspapers.

But the American cockroach has an entire department of DNA devoted to navigating all things nasty, researchers noted in the study.

Closeup of a cockroach face
If it festers, they will feast. Thithawat.S/Shutterstock

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, project member Shuai Zhan notes specialized genes that help the insect zero in on filth, particularly of the festering fermented kind.

A cockroach’s breakfast indeed.

But that’s not all. These roaches are also built with an in-house system that renders even the most rancid, stomach-churning foods safe to eat. And then there’s that ironclad immune system — governed by another set of genes — that buttresses the body against virtually any germ.

Yet another team of cockroach genes is dedicated to regrowing limbs that may have been lost to predators, or even screaming Aunt Hilda’s stomping shoe.

The result? A genetic juggernaut with tailor-made DNA for the waste-churning world we live in.

Which is why, when it comes to weathering everything this world can throw at it, cockroaches would likely give even the famously indestructible tardigrades a run for their money.

cartoon drawing of cockroach sipping radiation cocktail
About the only thing scientists aren't sure cockroaches would survive is a nuclear holocaust. But even that's not a given. Dmitriy Nikiforov/Shutterstock

But the researchers did note one possible weakness in the roach’s game. That long-accepted adage about roaches being able to survive a nuclear holocaust may not be true after all.

"I think this is an overstatement and has not been proved," Zhan noted in the study.

Admittedly, it’s hard to put surviving a nuclear bomb past a cockroach. But the truth is, the world won't likely end with a bag.

But a wrapper. A plastic wrapper on a beach — and a cockroach surfing it to the end of days.