Genetic Study of Bed Bugs

“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite”, says the famous rhyme but anybody that has ever experienced an infestation of these creatures will know that it’s no laughing matter. Now, as many cities are starting to see a resurgence in infestations of the blood-sucking parasites, scientists are turning to genetic studies to try and find out why this might be happening.

Researchers at Ohio State University have now almost finished sequencing the entire genetic map of the bed bug in the hope that they can discover the reason that modern pesticides are becoming less effective in dealing with infestations.

The study, published in the Public Library of Science Journal PLoS ONE, comments that bed bug infestations are now ‘rampant globally, nationally and locally’ and points to the importance of the study on economic grounds. Bed bug infestations can take significant time, effort and cost to eradicate and the study estimates that the work costs billions of dollars every year. The researchers estimate that infestations across the globe have increased by ‘an estimated 100 percent to 500 percent annual increase’ over the last decade.

Cities such as New York and Paris have been particularly badly hit. In August 2010, lingerie store Victoria’s Secret was forced to temporarily close down, due to the discovery of a bed bug infestation.

The bed bug, known scientifically as Cimex lectularius, is a blood-sucking parasite, which moves easily from one location to another. Bed bugs do not transmit disease, but cause itching and significant discomfort for human hosts, whose blood they feed on whilst the humans are asleep.

This is the first time that any kind of genetic study has been undertaken on the bed bug, in spite of the species prevalence and impact on social well-being. As part of the genome sequencing, researchers  looked especially for any genetic issues that might have contributed to a greater resilience to pesticides. It is believed that resistance to modern chemicals is one of the major reasons that bed bugs are on the increase again.

Human behaviour is thought to be making it far easier for the bugs to spread. Increased mobility, both domestically and internationally, more densely-populated buildings and an increase in sharing used furniture are all believed to contribute to the ease in which infestations spread.

Researchers believe that genetics will enable the development of new, more effective types of pesticide, to which the bed bugs have no resistance. In a statement, one of the researchers added that, “Pinpointing such defense mechanisms and the associated genes could lead to the development of novel methods of control that are more effective.”