Purdue University researchers participated in a multi-institute project that sequenced the genome of the common bed bug, a blood-sucking insect that has reemerged globally as a hardy pest capable of withstanding most major classes of insecticides. The genome of Cimex lectularius uncovers the genetic underpinning of bed bugs’ unique biology and offers new targets for controlling them. Purdue entomologists Ameya Gondhalekar and Michael Scharf contributed to the international effort by annotating the bugs’ antioxidant genes, which detoxify the blood they ingest and likely play a role in disarming certain types of insecticides.

“Bed bugs were the ignored pests for many decades, but their sudden prevalence has sparked interest in developing better bedbug control measures and knowing more about their biology,” says Gondhalekar, assistant professor of entomology, in a release. “The genome provides a much-needed platform for answering these questions at a deeper level.”

Bed bugs have plagued humans for at least 3,000 years, emerging at night to feed on blood, their sole source of nutrition and water. Widespread use of insecticides in homes after World War II curtailed their numbers dramatically, but over the past two decades, the bed bug has rebounded from near eradication in many regions to extraordinary levels of infestation on every continent except Antarctica. Infestations in Australia alone have risen 4,500%.

The bug’s unexpected comeback is likely due to a surge in international travel, the exchange of secondhand goods, and the pest’s evolution of resistance to many conventional insecticides, says Scharf, the O. Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Entomology.

“Nobody was ready for this,” he says. “It’s reached almost a crisis condition. All big cities in the US are experiencing problems. Our culture had forgotten about bed bugs, and two generations of entomologists haven’t had to deal with them.”

The genome shows that bed bugs have developed multiple ways of resisting insecticides. Their armor-like outer cuticle sports barriers and detoxification genes that help prevent insecticides from penetrating. Many bed bugs have also evolved new forms of sodium channels, gates in the nervous system that insecticides such as pyrethroids are designed to target and disrupt. The bugs might also detoxify ingested pesticides using the same robust antioxidant enzyme system they use to detoxify blood, the researchers say.

The genome indicated substantial inbreeding among bed bugs, suggesting that genetic resistance to pesticides can spread across populations.

Many of the bed bug genes associated with pesticide resistance have similar forms in other insects such as mosquitoes and fruit flies, but Scharf and Gondhalekar pinpointed antioxidant genes that appear to be unique to bed bugs, offering possible targets for genetic control measures.

Other factors that make bed bugs tough to control are their abilities to survive for months without a bloodmeal, easily hitchhike on clothes and luggage, feed stealthily, and stow away in furniture and mattresses. Many insecticides can only be applied to cracks, crevices, and baseboards, allowing the bugs to hide during spraying and emerge unscathed later.

“It only takes one pregnant bedbug to jumpstart an infestation of a whole building,” Scharf says.

Adult bed bugs can grow up to a quarter inch long and are flat, reddish-brown insects that resemble oversized versions of their sister species, the pea aphid. They use piercing-sucking mouthparts to penetrate human skin and slurp up a blood meal, typically leaving behind an itchy, red welt.

Severity of reactions to bedbug bites can vary widely, and the genome provides researchers with molecular resources to investigate whether proteins produced by bedbugs can cause allergies.

Though the bugs do not transmit disease, scratching bedbug bites can result in secondary infections, and infestations can exert a psychological toll, the researchers say.

People in infested homes can suffer from stress, paranoia, poor quality of sleep, insomnia, and depression. “Once you have bedbugs, everything changes,” Gondhalekar says. “You devote all your attention to getting rid of them.”

Previous research by Purdue entomologist Timothy Gibb shows that even people who mistakenly thought their homes were infested showed an increase in depression and distanced themselves from others. “People feel vulnerable,” Scharf says. “You’re being fed upon by something that drinks your blood while you’re sleeping.”

The genome also revealed that bed bugs have a significantly lower number of chemosensory genes compared with many other insects, possibly due to the bed bugs’ host specificity. They have inherited genes from symbiotic bacteria that provide essential nutrients lacking in blood. Bed bugs also have a large number of genes that code for resilin, which gives their cuticle elasticity. This adaptation likely helps female bedbugs recover after traumatic insemination, a mating process in which the male stabs the female’s abdomen with dagger-like genitalia.

The researchers say that pesticide companies could leverage these genomic resources to screen the effectiveness of available chemicals, lowering the cost of getting new insecticides to market.

“Fortunately, we’ve now got the genome early in the game,” Scharf says. “Having this knowledge now might enable us to prevent bedbugs from becoming pests at the level of German cockroaches or disease-transmitting mosquitoes.”

The paper is published in Nature Communications.