Scientists map bedbug DNA, follow pest through NYC subway

NEW YORK -- Scientists have mapped the genome of the bedbug, then used it to follow an army of the nefarious pests through the New York subway system.

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In the grubby recesses of hundreds of stations, they discovered something surprising: a big genetic diversity among the bloodsucking creatures.

"The genetic information suggests that bedbugs running north and south are more closely related than bedbugs on, say, Manhattan's West Side versus the East Side," said Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine's Institute for Computational Biomedicine who worked on the project with the American Museum of Natural History.

The next big step would be to use the new genetic information, and any variations, to invent more effective insecticides to which bedbugs might not be resistant. The genetic knowledge also could possibly improve human blood thinners: Bedbugs process blood in such a way that it does not clot, which in humans creates the danger of a stroke.

But these goals will take further medical research.

A bedbug colony at the famed museum was used for the genetic map that was assembled by an international research team including 36 institutions.

The New York team's resulting scientific paper on the subject was published Tuesday in Nature Communications. A second paper on bedbug genetics, from the University of Cincinnati, also appeared Tuesday in the same publication.

To learn how the bedbug has evolved and spread, the New York team took DNA samples from 1,400 city locations including subway cars and parks.

The scientists are not sure exactly how or when bedbugs got into a subway system used by nearly 6 million people daily. The critters were traced using DNA that they left behind.

Mason spearheaded the work on bedbugs with evolutionary biologist George Amato, director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History.

Amato said the first rough bedbug genetic sequence emerged about a year ago, but it took months to refine the model into an accurate genome.

"Before this, people were just feeling their way through in the dark; this genome turns the light on for various areas of other research," said Amato. "Our team is now moving on to the genetics of cockroaches and other living fossils."


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