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Bugged Out: Bed Bugs Could Be Key in Development of New Antibiotics

September 9, 2014

by Hazel Moon and Sudha Kamath

Don’t let the bed bugs bite—but those pesky creatures may not be all that bad. In fact, thanks to a grant from the 4-VA Consortium, a team including George Mason University researchers is trying to find out if bed bugs have properties that may help save lives.

Mason professor Monique van Hoek suspects bed bugs may carry something beneficial. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason microbiologist Monique van Hoek suspects bed bugs may carry beneficial bacteria. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

George Mason microbiologist Monique van Hoek says humans carry two different kinds of bacteria: gram-positive and gram-negative. Some of these bacteria are helpful; some are harmful. Bed bugs have only gram-positive bacteria, even though they live by feasting on humans.

Mason researchers are digging deeper into a bed bug mystery that could save human lives. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason researchers are digging deeper into a bed bug mystery that could save human lives. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

The professor suspects bed bugs do not have gram-negative bacteria because that bacteria is being killed by some sort of anti-microbial peptides or small proteins in the bed bugs, and those peptides could potentially save human lives in the future.

“I have always been fascinated by how these micro events translate into molecular events and I want to know what those are,” says van Hoek of Mason’s School of Systems Biology and National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases. “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.”

Van Hoek—along with professors Barney Bishop of Mason’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Ronald Raab and Rajeev Vaidyanathan of James Madison University—have been awarded a grant from the 4-VA program for collaborative research into the molecular composition of bed bugs. They’re trying to find out if the specific peptides responsible for killing gram-negative bacteria can lead to new forms of antibiotics.

Cimex lectularius, more commonly known as the bed bug, may hold a lifesaving key. Photo Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cimex lectularius, more commonly known as the bed bug, may hold a lifesaving key. Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This research is critical because of increasing strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The collaboration among the professors came about because of an awareness of each other’s research areas and discussions about how bed bugs are different from other organisms in terms of their bacteria-killing properties.

4-VA grants link expertise and funds across the consortium, benefiting researchers and students. Students have the opportunity to work on collaborative research and to receive “real-world” lab experience to bolster future studies and careers.