New map of genome should help to restore global control over bedbugs

side view of an adult bedbug on human skin

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mapping the bedbug genome is a crucial step in regaining global control over the parasite, two entomologists at Texas A&M AgriLife Research say.

The entomologists are among a team of roughly 80 international scientists whose work in sequencing the genome was published this month in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

They are Ed Vargo, a professor and holder of the Endowed Chair in Urban and Structural Entomology, and Spencer Johnston, a professor, both in the Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Johnson is also a member of the Faculty of Genetics, an interdisciplinary program that draws from 19 departments in the colleges of agriculture, science, and veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences.

According to their paper, the bedbug has re-established itself as a human parasite throughout much of the world. The causes are linked to increased international travel and commerce and widespread insecticide resistance by the bug.

Bedbugs, Vargo said, “are very small insects, about the size of an apple seed, that have been associated with humans for a long, long time. They are unique in that they fill a very specific ecological niche and specialize in feeding almost exclusively on human blood.”

The bugs are active at night, he said, and administer a slight anesthetic with each bite, deadening the site so as to remain undetected. Reactions such as welts and itching can take a day or two to develop.

“They’ve been around for thousands of years, but with the advent of modern pesticides they all but disappeared from the industrialized world in the 1950s,” Vargo said.

In the last 20 years, Vargo said, bedbugs have resurged, are now found in all 50 U.S. states, and are especially prevalent in low income housing and housing for the elderly.

By sequencing the bedbugs’ genome, scientists now know which genes are critical for their survival.

“So having the genome is a valuable resource that any researcher in the world now has access to,” Vargo said. “This whole approach of targeting genes in organisms for their control is being used across the spectrum of agriculture and urban entomology. This paper provides a publically accessible resource that scientists can use to develop new and specific targets for bedbug control.”

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