A Biopesticide to Beat Back Bed Bugs

A Biopesticide to Beat Back Bed Bugs

By Charles Wright

A recently reported biopesticide could provide a simple, yet effective means to eliminate—and even prevent—bed bug infections. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University have developed a biopesticide, which utilizes a natural fungus that is lethal to Cimex lectularius (aka bed bugs) but harmless to humans. A robust university entrepreneurial ecosystem has helped accelerate development beyond the laboratory. The product, named Aprehend™, is expected to reach the market later this year.

Bed Bug Infestations Are on the Rise

For modern city dwellers, few names evoke the same fear as the name “bed bugs”. The reason behind this fear is that these tiny, bloodsucking creatures are very difficult to eliminate once an infestation occurs. Cimex lectularius grows up to 0.2 inches long, but the hatchlings are small enough that they can easily pass through a stitch-hole in a mattress. This obligatory hematophagus (bloodsucking) insect can survive a wide range of temperature and atmospheric compositions, but its favorite environments are warm houses; it finds beds and bedding particularly inviting.

Evidence shows that this parasite has plagued humans for thousands of years, although eradication efforts in the 1950s almost succeeded in erasing it from the developed world. However, in the past two decades, bed bugs have regained their reputation as one of the most dreaded household infestations, due to the fact that pesticide resistance has increased, governments have placed bans on effective but potentially dangerous alternatives, and international travel has become more frequent.

Bed bugs are particularly difficult to control because of their secretive lifestyles. Chemical pesticides cannot reach the cracks and crevices where they hide out, and thus extermination often involves major efforts by the homeowner to clean all clothing and reduce clutter. And, because these chemicals require direct, long-term exposure, multiple applications over the course of several weeks are required to kill all of the invading insects. A more effective treatment is heat, but heating a room to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours is costly and difficult to carry out in a large home. In addition, any areas that do not reach the correct temperature could provide a haven for surviving bed bugs to regroup and reinvigorate their attack.

A New Weapon in Our Arsenal

A team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University have recently developed a biopesticide that could give humans a significant advantage in this ongoing battle. They have taken a different approach from traditional chemical pesticides, using a naturally occurring fungus called Beauveria bassiana that targets the bed bugs by taking advantage of their lifestyles.

Nina Jenkins, a senior research associate in the Department of Entomology, and Matt Thomas, professor and Huck Scholar in ecological entomology, have spent the last three decades creating biopesticides. They worked in the multinational team that created Green Muscle, which uses a fungal disease formulated in oil to control locusts and grasshoppers in Africa. In their most recent study, these researchers and their colleagues at Penn State tested the ability of a formulation containing the fungus Beauveria bassiana to kill bed bugs. This natural and indigenous fungus causes disease in insects but is harmless to humans.

Amazingly, exposure to this biopesticide proved effective at killing bed bugs in less than a week.

“We did very straightforward experiments to see whether it would work, and for bed bugs it worked the best of any pest we had ever tried”, said Jenkins. “They died more quickly than the mosquitoes and the flies with the same dose.”

Because this fungus is a particulate, bed bugs that walk across a sprayed surface pick up the spores and spread them when grooming. In less than a day, the spores germinate and colonize the insect’s body. Most importantly, exposing only a small fraction of the bugs to the fungus leads to complete infection of the population, as the individuals that encounter the fungus return to their hiding places and physically transfer the spores to their compatriots.

Coming Soon to a Pest Controller Near You

Because bed bugs naturally transfer this biopesticide among themselves, there is no need to spray individual insects directly as with conventional methods. Instead, strategic application to surfaces known to contain bed bugs, such as the perimeter of a box spring, suffices. This feature makes the compound especially attractive as a commercial product. When the researchers realized its potential, they immediately filed a patent through Penn State’s Office of Technology Management. But instead of licensing out the technology, Jenkins is working with Giovani Bellicanta, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Entomology, to bring it to market themselves under the name Aprehend.

In their endeavor to commercialize this product, they made extensive use of Penn State’s entrepreneurial resources. This included  grant funding from the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Research Applications for Innovation (RAIN) program to cover regulatory costs, legal aid from Penn State Law’s Entrepreneurship Assistance Clinic, and knowledge gained from participating in a pair of business “boot camps” offered by the local Ben Franklin TechCelerator.

Participation in the TechCelerator process helped Jenkins and Belicanta formulate their business plan.  It was through this process that they discovered a completely untapped market for their product. Rather than just being used to exterminate infestations, it can also be used to prevent them.

“Because the Aprehend spray lasts and will do its job for a period of three months, it can be used as a quarterly preventative treatment in hotels,” according to Jenkins. “We can’t prevent bed bugs from coming in, but if we can maximize the chances of bed bugs crossing a sprayed barrier on their way to or from their hideout, we can prevent an infestation from establishing.”

Aprehend is poised to become one of the earliest success stories to come out of the Invent Penn State initiative. The researchers hope to make it available to professional pest controllers later this year. This biopesticide could not only provide an effective means to curb bed bug infestations, but also change the way these pests are managed by allowing for regular preventative measures.

There are two important themes to note from this story. First, the researchers applied a completely new approach based on a natural rather than chemical pesticide. This natural approach will allow exterminators to treat bed bugs that have become resistant to traditional chemical pesticides. And, second, the rapid development towards a commercially viable product illustrates the key role that entrepreneurial resources at the university level can play in advancing early-stage research out of the laboratory.

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