Linking locusts to obesity

Professor Steve Simpson

Inspiring new ideas on combating obesity: Professor Steve Simpson

Our researchers are using the eating habits of locusts to help us unlock answers to the world obesity crisis.

When Professor Stephen Simpson talks about locusts and obesity, he’s not just referring to locusts’ well-known ability to eat everything in sight but to research that may hold the key to solving the world’s current obesity crisis, giving us insights into what drives our appetites.

One of Professor Simpson’s findings is that locusts swarm when they aren’t consuming enough protein, eating everything they can until they get a certain amount of protein. Any locust that doesn’t join the march becomes a food source for those on the move.

Once the locusts have satisfied their appetite for protein, they stop swarming. Of course by then they may have eaten through tons of food crops and other plant life, with devastating effects on the environment, native animals, food sources and people working in the associated industries.

Humans, and other animals, also have this appetite for a set quantity of protein and like locusts will over-eat until they get enough of it. Unfortunately, in today’s world, that means we’re likely to eat our way through a large amount of fatty and carbohydrate-laden food on our way to protein satiety.

This mechanism of eating till we get enough protein is known as the ‘protein leverage effect’, and when combined with a lack of exercise – common in the computer age – can lead humans to become overweight and obese.

Professor Simpson’s work shows that the obesity epidemic could be affected if we control the amount of protein we consume, because of the effect of protein on our eating habits and food intake.

Humans have an in-built limit to their protein intake, which can cause us to eat less carbohydrates and fat if we are getting the maximum amount of protein we need, because of the feeling of satiation it gives. This explains why high-protein diets can assist people with weight loss, although they may not necessarily deliver all the nutrition a human being needs.

His research has also begun looking at the ways in which some individuals are predisposed to become obese through a combination of genetics, their environment and the evolutionary process – including searching for genes which offer resistance to obesity.

Research studies on aquaculture, livestock feed, conservation biology and locust control are building on Professor Simpson’s research. It is one of many surprisingly related fields of study being tackled by the new Charles Perkins Centre combating obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease using a cross-disciplinary approach.

The state-of-the-art centre aims to become a global hub for innovative research into the three related conditions and is due to be completed in 2013. Professor Simpson has been appointed Academic Director of the centre.

"The centre will integrate and enhance existing research across the University in an effort to address and solve the huge social and health costs arising from these metabolic diseases, which we believe can be prevented," he says.

“Where else could a locust biologist contribute to solving the world’s obesity crisis?”