You may remember when “Don’t let the bedbugs bite” was just a cute thing parents said to their children. These days, though, it’s a real—albeit futile—warning. After decades of near eradication, the bedbug is back, and badder than ever. Now scientists say they’ve found clues to the bug’s tenacity buried in its genome and microbiome. The scientists published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Bedbugs are living fossils; their outward appearance has hardly changed throughout their long lineage, noted corresponding author George Amato in a press statement. “But despite their static look, we know that they continue to evolve, mostly in ways that make it harder for humans to dissociate with them. This work gives us the genetic basis to explore the bedbug’s basic biology and its adaptation to dense human environments.”
Trying to understand bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) is more than just an intellectual exercise. As anyone who’s ever dealt with an infestation knows, they’re not just gross—they’re persistent. Clearing a home of bedbugs can be a painfully drawn-out and expensive process, in part because the little pests have developed a resistance to common pesticides.
The roots of that resistance lie in the bedbug’s genome, project co-leader Coby Schal said in a press statement. “The genome sequence shows genes that encode enzymes and other proteins that the bedbug can use to fight insecticides, whether by degrading them or by preventing them from penetrating its body."
And that’s not all they found. In teasing out the bedbug’s genetic code, the researchers saw explanations for many of the pest’s unique traits, like sex shielding. Male bedbugs are notoriously opportunistic about sex. They’ll jab their sharp, penis-like appendages at pretty much anything, including other males. And the sex itself isn’t pretty: The male bedbug stabs the female in the abdomen, then releases his sperm freely into the wound. To ease the sting of what scientists call “traumatic insemination,” female bedbugs have developed a kind of shielded funnel on their undersides. The protein that keeps that shield strong is called resilin, and it has its own code in the bedbug’s genome.
Not all the bedbug’s genes are bedbug genes; some of them came from other organisms, including the parasitic bacterium Wolbachia. "We don't know if the bacterium is co-opting the bedbug or if the bedbug is co-opting the bacterium,” Schal said in the press statement. “Very few of these bacterial genes are functional and we don't know what proteins they are producing. But it would be fascinating if bacterial genes that are useful to the bedbug, such as those involved in B vitamin metabolism, were incorporated into the bedbug genome."
The bug's microbiome had its own insights to offer. Researchers found the genes of more than 400 species of bacteria living on and in the bugs. The scientists theorize that these microbes help keep the bedbugs alive—which means there's a chance that targeted antibiotics to knock out these bacteria could eventually help us knock out the bedbugs, too.
Another finding concerns the bedbugs' ability to take in relatively large amounts of liquid (that is, blood) without exploding. They can balloon up to 200 percent their body size while feeding through a handy diuretic system. "Bedbugs must be able to shed that water while retaining the blood's nutrients," Schal said.
And then there’s the bedbug’s bite. The scientists found proteins that act as both anesthetics and anticoagulants that keep your blood flowing while keeping you from noticing.