Why won't bedbugs die? Because they're mutants

"Don't let the bedbugs bite" takes on real meaning as researchers reveal the genes in pesticide-resistant bugs

Published January 21, 2011 5:22PM (EST)

If you've ever had an infestation you know: bedbugs are invincible. And now there's scientific research to prove it.

Researchers recently uncovered the secret behind the pesticide-resistant pests. In what can only be considered a feat of lightning-fast evolution, gene restructuring is the key to why these bedbugs won’t die. This discovery is critical in finding an extinguishing method that actually works.

Urban pest-management specialist Dini Miller calls the gene-restructuring process “unnatural selection.” Repeated exposure to pesticides causes certain bedbugs to produce more of the enzymes that combat poisons in the system. According to findings published by Ohio State University entomologists in PLoS One Journal, these enzymes “modify toxic compounds into water-soluble, non-toxic compounds” that can then be flushed out of the bug.

The Ohio State University study compared bedbugs from several decades ago with bedbugs from current infestations. The older bugs -- courtesy of military bug enthusiast* Harold Harlan -- lived in an isolated colony and responded positively to common pesticides. (That is, they suffered and died.) The newer bugs survived, and analysis of the new genome revealed higher levels of the mutant, pesticide-resistant enzyme.

This new genetic evidence, coupled with the fact that bedbugs have both a better ability to protect nerve cells and thicker shells, mean that we're confronted with an entirely different species. 

Indeed, over the past ten years, the bedbug population has increased by nearly 500 percent in North America. Perhaps even more terrifying is the fact that the insects can now survive a pesticide dose 1,000 times greater than in decades past. As a result, eradicating the blood-sucking creatures from their common habitats in homes, hotels, and dorms is nearly impossible.

So what can we do? Is there a solution? 

Suggestions include: alternate pesticides, create a giant city-wide heat machine, unleash a beagle-Jack Russell terrier mix to sniff them out, or, tape bags over your hands, bathe in Benadryl, and wait for the inevitable infestation of bedbug-eating hummingbirds.  

And, in case you were thinking of moving, here's a list of the top ten bedbug infested cities:

1. Cincinnati, Ohio
2. Columbus, Ohio
3. Chicago, Illinois
4. Denver, Colorado
5. Detroit, Michigan
6. Washington, D.C.
7. New York, New York
8. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
9. Dayton, Ohio
10. Baltimore, Maryland

By Amy Steinberg

Amy Steinberg is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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