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Researchers Sequenced the Bed Bug's Genome, Hope to Find Its Weak Spots

Their findings could help others come up with more effective pesticides.
Researchers have analyzed the whole gross genome for the bedbug Cimex lectularius. Image: Benoit Guenard

From New York to London to Istanbul, the bedbug—resistant to most insecticides and able to thrive in damp and dark conditions—continues to terrorise many.

But researchers have finally sequenced the common bedbug's complete genome, and they hope this may help in the future war against the pest.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from the American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medicine describe sequencing the genome of Cimex lectularius, the common bed bug species. Their findings could assist other scientists in understanding the pest's biology and relationship with its environment, which could ultimately lead to the creation of a better pesticide.

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"This research has provided an enormous amount of information. In the past, it was like you were feeling your way through the dark, but now we have the whole genome and transcriptome," said George Amato, the director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and study lead author, over the phone. The transcriptome is a set of all messenger RNA molecules in one or more cells.

The bed bug's physical appearance, said Amato, doesn't differ to how it looked 60 million years ago—though it didn't feed on human blood back then. Its genome, however, has continued to evolve. "We wanted to look at what the differences were in the expressed genes at the different life stages of the bed bug," he said.

The researchers explored whether the bed bug's genes were similar to the genes of other insect species associated with pesticide resistance. They found that, similar to other pesticide-resistant insects, the bed bug's genome encodes enzymes and proteins that allow it to fight insecticides by preventing them from penetrating its hard little shell.

"We used the information gathered from the bed bug genome as a way to examine environmental DNA from bedbugs that we could collect from subway systems around the city of New York"

The researchers also studied which of the bed bug's genes were expressed when the creature had consumed blood.

"Anti-coagulates have turned out to be important bioactive compounds in medicine and biomedical research, so we thought that by elucidating something about the presence of genes in those pathways that they would be of interest to researchers working in those areas," said Amato.

Bed bugs have increased in numbers over recent years, infesting urban areas, causing mass sleeplessness and itching. So the researchers also looked into how bedbugs were spread across a cityscape such as New York to see what sort of effects the distribution of these animals have.

"We used the information gathered from the bed bug genome as a way to examine environmental DNA from bedbugs that we could collect from subway systems around the city of New York," explained Amato. "Is their population structure influenced, for example, by how people use the landscape?"

Ultimately, the researchers hope their preliminary investigations will help others come up with stronger solutions against bed bugs.

"It's like having the light turned on. Now scientists are in a much better position to examine all the various areas of interest related to the species," said Amato.