If you’ve ever stayed in a string of backpackers’ hostels, you’ll know bed bugs are alive and plentiful in many countries across the developed world.
In a big step towards fighting these pesky travel-buddies, scientists from 36 different institutions have successfully mapped the DNA profile of Cimex lectularius, the common bed bug – and found some surprising details.
This species lives exclusively on blood, with a particular preference for humans. As the name suggests, bed bugs reside in warm areas such as beds, bedclothes, quilts and couches, and infestations are notoriously difficult to stamp out.
Experts predict the genome of the common bed bug, published in Nature Communications today, could shine some light on its weaknesses, and potentially assist in its eradication from human-occupied areas.
Jack Werren, a biologist at the University of Rochester in New York and a study author, says that although the sequencing of insect genomes is fairly common, the bed bug is of particular interest because of its unique biological makeup.
The species represents a rare case in which genes from different types of bacteria can be transferred to the insect’s chromosomes, altering its DNA.
"Usually, genes that are transferred from other organisms never become functional or are harmful to the host organism," Werren explains.
"In those cases, the transferred material is often lost by random processes such as mutation and deletion, or removed during genetic selection."
But in the case of male bed bugs, a gene transferred from Wolbachia, a bacteria that commonly infects insects, appears to be functional. Across the bed bug sample, Werren and his team identified more than 800 genes potentially transferred from bacteria, although only six instances have been confirmed so far.
This knowledge, along with other findings gathered from the genome sequencing, could affect how pest control is used on populations of C. lectularius.
Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist.
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