Battle Against Lice May Be Aided By Genome Study

Associated Press + More

By Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Sometimes scientific research can be a lousy job.

Literally.

In their quest to understand how life works, researchers reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have sequenced the genome of the human body louse.

That's right, those annoying little suckers that live on human blood and place their eggs in clothing.

From a practical standpoint, the findings could lead to better ways to eliminate this parasite, which can carry diseases to people, according to the researchers led by Ewen F. Kirkness of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. and Barry R. Pittendrigh of the University of Illinois, Urbana.

It turns out that the human body louse relies for its digestion on a specific type of bacteria, which is not resistant to antibiotics. So finding a way to get drugs to the bacteria might kill the lice too. Knowing more about lice may also lead to new types of repellant.

The louse genome is small and contains relatively few genes related to light reception or reacting to odors and tastes, the study found.

The researchers said it appears that the human body louse evolved from the human head louse about the time people started wearing clothes, offering lice another place to hide. In addition, they noted that the human louse and the Chimpanzee louse evolved from a common ancestor between 5 million and 7 million years ago.

It's been more than an annoyance ever since, potentially carrying typhus, relapsing fever and trench fever.

"Beyond its importance in the context of human health, the body louse genome is of considerable importance to understanding insect evolution," May R. Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois, said in a statement.

The genome sequencing effort involved researchers at 28 institutions in the U.S., Europe, Australia and South Korea.

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