Bedbug genome spills secrets of violence, weird sex

bed bug feeding

Bedbugs have been feeding on humans for at least 3,000 years. And in the last two decades, populations of the pest have grown, probably spurred by pesticide resistance and increase global travel. A new genetic analysis yields clues to that success.

Louis Sorkin

In the bloody conflict between humans and bedbugs, humans have acquired unprecedented intelligence on the enemy. Researchers outline the genome sequence of the common bedbug (Cimex lectularius) in a pair of papers published February 2 in Nature Communications.

A team led by Jeffery Rosenfeld at the American Museum of Natural History in New York sequenced the bug’s genome during the five stages of its life cycle and found the period following its first meal of human blood is marked by major genetic changes. The team also used the genome sequence to compare bedbug populations in New York City subway stations. (Unsurprisingly, bedbugs from the Bronx are most closely related to other bedbugs from the Bronx.)

In a second analysis, Joshua Benoit of the University of Cincinnati and colleagues link some genes to bedbugs’ violent mating practices, their ability to sniff out humans, salivary chemicals that leave humans unaware of a bite and enzymes that help the bugs process blood.

Both teams flagged genes from key members of the bedbug microbiome and genes involved in different mechanisms of insecticide resistance. The findings could lead to more effective means of controlling bedbug populations in cities around the world.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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