For five years, she traveled from one bedbug-infested apartment to another, willingly succumbing each night to the wrath of the tiny, bronze-bodied critters who fed on her blood.
It was a sacrifice for science.
After providing free meals to thousands of bedbugs, Simon Fraser University biologist Regine Gries has discovered the key to conquering the maddening pests.
To study the insects, Gries partnered up with her husband Gerhard (who’s also a biologist) and chemist Robert Britton, also of Simon Fraser. Regine served as the bedbug guinea pig, spending countless nights in dozens of bedbug-infested apartments in the metro area of Vancouver.
After each of her stints, Regine would awaken to a mattress dotted with bed bug remains — delicate flakes of shredded skin and tiny sacs of blood-filled feces — the leftovers of the critters’ feast. Unlike Gerhard (and the majority of the rest of us), Regine doesn’t get itchy when bit — she simply breaks out in a light rash. Gerhard and Regine swept up these remains to take back to the lab, where Gerhard spent hours studying the chemicals inside.
He was looking for a key ingredient.
Like humans and other animals, bed bugs produce and detect distinct smells. More importantly for Gerhard’s purposes, they use these odours to communicate. The critters can signal the rest of the crowd to disperse (if harm is near, for example) or call to each other to gather ’round (if, say, one member of the group finds food).
Inside the bed bugs’ shed skins and feces, the Gries team found the basic ingredients for a bug-alluring scent — a creepy crawler J’dore Dior they could use to lure the bugs into a trap.
Once they’d recreated the smelly solution, they tried it out. To their dismay, it only worked inside the lab — the bedbugs came running — but when they tried it out in the infested apartments, it was useless. Something wasn’t right.
“We realised that a highly unusual component must be missing — one that we couldn’t find using our regular…tools,” Gerhard said in a statement.
That’s when the Gries’ teamed up with Britton, an expert at recreating nature’s complex mixtures inside the lab. Using special technology that allowed him to take a closer look at the bedbug remains, magnifying them to the point where he could detect their individual atoms, Britton found the chemical clue the Gries team was looking for: histamine, which could freeze the bedbugs in their tracks.
While five other scents the Gries team had identified before were able to successfully lure the nasty critters into their traps, only the histamine — the same chemical produced by our white blood cells as part of our immune response — stopped them from moving.
The trifecta is still perfecting their solution, before they can start selling it commercially. Until then, we wait. In fear.
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