Bed Bug Collaborative Research May Yield Alternatives to Antibiotics

Common Bed Bug image from Wikimedia Commons.

Common Bed Bug image from Wikimedia Commons.

by Hazel Moon

The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, has become a problem where ever people live in close proximity to one another. Housing, healthcare facilities, hotels, and even libraries are frequent bed bug habitats. While bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases, they can be a particular nuisance in terms of biting people and causing skin problems. Even more frustrating is that bed bugs are extremely hard to get rid of. We would all be better off without them. Or would we?

Dr. Monique van Hoek of Mason’s School of Systems Biology sees bed bugs in a much more positive light. We all live with two different kinds of bacteria: gram-positive and gram-negative. Some of these bacteria are helpful to us and some are harmful. Bed bugs, on the other hand, have only gram-positive bacteria. Considering that bed bugs live by feasting on humans, the fact that they don’t have gram-negative bacteria is a mystery. Dr. van Hoek’s hypothesis is that bed bugs have some sort of anti-microbial peptides or small proteins that are killing the gram-negative bacteria. These peptides could potentially save human lives in the future.

In collaboration with Dr. Ronald Raab (James Madison University), Dr. Rajeev Vaidyanathan (Clarke), and Dr. Barney Bishop of Mason’s Department of Chemistry, Dr. van Hoek was recently awarded a grant from the 4-VA Program for their research into the molecular composition of bed bugs. The hope is to discover the specific peptides that are responsible for killing gram-negative bacteria and applying these discoveries to new forms of antibiotics. This research is critical due to increasing strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The collaboration came about due to an awareness of each other’s research areas and discussions about how bed bugs are different from other organisms of terms of their bacteria killing properties. 4-VA collaborative research grants link expertise and funds across the consortium, thereby benefiting researchers and students alike. Students have the opportunity to work on collaborative research and to receive “real-world” lab experience that will benefit their future careers and studies.

Dr. van Hoek has always been interested in helping people.  While completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry, followed by a PhD in Microbiology, she knew that she didn’t want to be a doctor.  However, she always wanted to take what she was good at doing and apply it in some way that would help others. “I have always been fascinated by how these micro-events translate into molecular events and I want to know what those are. The bigger picture of this work is to find new kinds of molecules and in this case – peptides, that could be a new type of platform with which to develop a new class of antibiotics. Lots of people are working to find new alternatives to traditional antibiotics and I thought bed bugs would be a pretty unique place to start.” The next time you are up all night thinking about the creepy-crawlies that are potentially lurking in the dark, you can sleep better knowing that they might one day save your life.

Hazel Moon is the Graduate Assistant to the Associate Provost of Undergraduate Education. She is pursuing an MPA in Public Administration.

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