Scientists from Cornell Weill Medicine and the American Museum of Natural History sequenced a complete genome of bedbugs — pests that have plagued human populations for centuries — for the first time, according to a report published in Nature Feb. 2.
“The common bedbug is a worldwide pest wherever humans live,” said Prof. Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Institute for Computational Biomedicine and a senior author of the study.
Sequencing the full bedbug genome will give scientists the ability to track the DNA, RNA and bacteria that allow bedbugs to adapt to different environments. This could provide researchers with valuable information about how to treat bedbug infestations, which have been difficult to combat because they evade detection and develop resistance to insecticides, according to Mason.
After collecting samples from New York City’s subway system, the team found that bedbugs had more widespread genetic variation than they initially expected. They cited the subway’s layout — almost three dozen lines run to all corners of the city — as the main reason for this diversity, according to Mason.
The study also yielded findings that could prove helpful in future research and medical advancements, according to George Amato, a corresponding author on the study.
“[A] set of genes we looked at are involved in blood feeding, so [they] include anticoagulants,” Amato said. “There is great interest in the human health community in discovering new anticoagulants for medical purposes.”
The team identified three types of anticoagulant genes and their related proteins, which may help medical researchers develop new blood thinners.
The researchers became interested in studying bedbugs after finding a bedbug fossilized in amber that was 60 million years old, according to Amato.
“Since we know that their genomes have continued to evolve, we wondered whether there is something unusual about their genome organization that is responsible for such little change in their appearance,” Amato said.
Though many people are afraid of bedbugs, the bugs are not known to transmit diseases to humans, according to Mason. However, some people experience long-term phobias and severe skin reactions after bites.
Mason attributed the spread of bedbugs to “the advent of heated homes and year-round domiciles” and to the bugs’ resilience, he said.
“Adult [bedbugs] can live for up to one year without a blood meal,” Mason said. “Under certain conditions, and along with their secretive habits, [this] makes them very hard to get rid of.”