Beating Bedbugs with Biology
SECHER: One night, Mike Sutphin lay in his bed when he felt something itching on his leg. He lifted the covers and saw two bugs crawling up his knee.
SUTPHIN: I woke my roommate up and it was like 2 o’clock in the morning and I was like, hey can you look at something, I’m scared I think these are bedbugs.
SECHER: The next day Sutphin decided to check his bed more carefully.
SUTPHIN: And I lifted up my mattress and like literally the entirety of my bed frame had been converted into a hive, like the whole thing.
SECHER: He called an exterminator who ended up having to come to the apartment FIVE times before it was free of bedbugs.
SUTPHIN: So the bedframe I have now is totally made of metal, you can see, (sound from lifting the bed) it actually has like those white spots are from like the bedbug poison that they like leave on the bed.
SECHER: The exterminators put a poisonous powder all over Sutphin’s room and he had to wash every piece of fabric in the entire apartment. Finally, after six months – the apartment was bedbug free. Coby Schal is an entomologist at North Carolina State University who studies bedbugs. He’s part of a team that recently published a study about the genes of the bedbug. And he says part of the reason bedbugs are so hard to get rid of is because they’re becoming more resilient against traditional techniques.
SCHAL: So there’s this constant arms race of this warfare between insects and humans and bedbugs are an excellent example of that
SECHER: And for the first time, Schal and his team have completed the entire genome sequence of the bedbug
SCHAL: We are hoping that the bedbug genome will open up new avenues through identifying targets in the genome that are weak links in the biology of the bedbug.
SECHER: When researchers for example want to find out exactly what it is that bedbugs smell when they try to find humans – the genome can help them out, by telling them which receptors are expressed in the bedbug’s antenna.
SECHER: That way, this research is the first step to develop odors that can attract bedbugs into physical traps. And a physical trap is exactly what Dr Miriam Rafailovich and Harry Shan He are working on in their lab at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
HE: So over here you can see three bedbugs, the one on the top is the one without any fiber, the one in the middle has some fiber inside of it.
SECHER: Shan He is looking at three dead bedbugs lying in the corner of a glass container – two of them have been trapped in a new type of fiber that looks like cotton candy. Rafailovich says once they enter the fiber trap, there’s no escaping.
RAFAILOVICH: We were told that bedbugs can survive for weeks, they don’t have to eat very much, but when they’re trapped in those fibers they keep struggling to escape and they’re dead within a day or two (0:12)
SECHER: Rafailovich and Schal both agree that a mechanical solution like this is the way to go – since the bedbugs won’t be able to develop resistance to it. And if genetics research could help develop an odor that attracts the bedbugs into the trap… well, that would likely work wonders.
Unfortunately for Mike Sutphin, we’re not there yet. And even though it’s been over a year, the trauma of the bedbugs is still fresh.
SUTPHIN: I go to sleep sometimes and if i feel something on my leg i like check all my pillows, i check all my sheets, i check the mattress, I check my dog, i just make sure there’s nothing out there, and i mean, yes, that literally happened a week ago.
SECHER: Schal says we’re probably never gonna be able to eradicate the bedbugs completely. But scientists say there will at least be better traps to keep them out of our beds. Åsa Secher, Columbia Radio News.