Bed Bug Genome, Zika Virus Update, and Computing Under the Waves

11:49 minutes

A bed bug nymph (Cimex lectularius) preparing to feed. Photo by Piotr Naskrecki
A bed bug nymph (Cimex lectularius) preparing to feed. Photo by Piotr Naskrecki

Two teams of researchers mapped out the genome of a notorious house pest—the bed bug. The results were published this week in two studies in Nature Communications. Science writer Brooke Borel tells us what the genome reveals about the bed bug’s exoskeleton and blood-feeding ability. She also fact-checks a few of the scientific claims made by the presidential candidates in this election cycle.

Plus, Microsoft is testing underwater data centers. We’ll dive into the topic.

Project Natick. Photo courtesy of Microsoft
Project Natick. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Segment Guests

Brooke Borel

The author of the blog Our Modern Plagues, Brooke Borel is also a contributing editor for Popular Science. She’s based in Brooklyn, New York.

Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Good to have you with us today. A bit later in the hour, pioneering cancer doctor Vincent DeVita, Jr., will join us to talk about the politics of cancer research and the hurdles facing future treatments.

But first, there are two little words, which whispered in the middle of the night, is sure to strike terror into the soundest of sleepers. Those words, bed bugs, ooh! But scientists are not taking these bugs lying down. Two teams mapped out the genome of the hardy little blood sucker to find out what makes it tick. Brooke Borel is here to tell us about that story and other selected short subjects in science. She writes the “Modern Plagues” blog and is author of a book about bed bugs called Infested. Welcome back.

BROOKE BOREL: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re the perfect person for this topic. Tell us about– what are the researcher– what did they find when they went in there?

BROOKE BOREL: Yeah. So they found a lot of things. Some new things, some things that we already knew. But altogether, confirming what we already suspected, and that’s that bed bugs are pretty gross and annoying. So some of the genes that they found, they found different sets of genes, relatively small number of genes, related to sight and smell, possibly because bed bugs don’t really have to rely on these things to find us in our beds. It’s not that hard to find us across our bedrooms.

They also found some increased number of genes associated with this elastic protein called resilin. And this is interesting because bed bugs mate during this process called traumatic insemination, where the male actually stabs the female through her exoskeleton into her gut. And the resilin, perhaps, in her exoskeleton is making it sort of elastic to kind of protect her from that.

And also, the researchers confirmed many different genes that are relevant for pesticide resistance, which is a problem that’s been happening for a decade or so now. It’s one of the problems– one of the main problems with controlling this pest. And so, eventually, probably not in the near future, but scientists may be able to use this as a blueprint to find new ways to control them.

IRA FLATOW: They didn’t find that yet, right?

BROOKE BOREL: Not the solution, no.

IRA FLATOW: What we all want to hear, how to get rid of them or keep them away. They haven’t found that yet. Let’s talk next about the Zika virus. What’s the latest on the Zika virus.

BROOKE BOREL: Well, the CDC issued some more travel alerts this week in parts of Central America, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, several other countries there, the Caribbean, and also the Pacific Islands. So if people are traveling to– it’s not a total travel ban to those areas, but people might want to look at the CDC website for advice on traveling there.

There have been some more cases in the US. Scientific American actually put together this map of Zika cases since 2007. They noted more than two dozen since that year. But it’s important to note that these are probably mostly travelers who picked this up elsewhere. These aren’t transmissions in the US.

One exception to that is this case in Texas earlier this week, where someone appears to have gotten Zika through sexual transmission. This isn’t necessarily a new thing. It seems to be pretty rare, but that’s how they got that. And I did also see a report this morning that the lead Brazilian health research institute said that they discovered active Zika in urine and saliva. So that does seem to be able to survive in certain body fluids.

IRA FLATOW: Almost like the rest of the iceberg is unveiling from the tip.

BROOKE BOREL: Some of it, anyway. There’s a lot we still don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: And Florida’s very upset about this.

BROOKE BOREL: Right. People are upset. I mean, a lot of people are upset probably because there’s so many.

IRA FLATOW: State of emergency, right, in Florida.

BROOKE BOREL: Yeah. So many unknowns here. I think that’s part of the scary thing.

IRA FLATOW: You wrote an article that fact checked some of the science claims that presidential candidates have been making this cycle.

BROOKE BOREL: Yes. At Popular Science. So yeah, we were looking at different comments and claims that have been made during the debates, on Twitter, and media campaigns. And sort of collecting those and fact checking the science in those. So we saw some not too surprising patterns. Comments about climate change, about vaccines, things like that. And then we gathered those together to talk about those and the actual science behind them.



IRA FLATOW: Drum roll please.

BROOKE BOREL: Drum roll please. Well, I mean, here’s an example of a quote that we found. This is from Donald Trump in the September GOP debate. I’m not going to do a Donald Trump voice, so sorry for listeners out there. I’m just going to read it. But he said autism has become an epidemic. 25 years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of hand and I’m totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.

So we took quotes like this. And of course, here he’s kind of hedging a little bit. He’s saying he’s trying to connect them with autism, but then at the same breath saying he’s for vaccines but he wants smaller doses. Of course, if you do a smaller dose of a vaccine, those doses are selected for a very specific reason.

There’s no point in doing a smaller dose. It’s not going to protect you in the same way. And spreading them out, you know, the CDC and experts make these schedules based on a lot of different things. If you spread the vaccines out, you’re just making kids more vulnerable to these infectious diseases.

The other thing we found in doing this, science is not necessarily partisan, but most of the comments that we found in this particular presidential primary, or these primaries, were from the Republicans. That doesn’t necessarily mean– as recently as 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were actually making statements questioning, for example, the science on vaccines and autism. They’ve changed their mind since then, but both parties have goofed up on stuff like this in the past.

IRA FLATOW: But we see very little, very few, if no questions about science from the moderators.

BROOKE BOREL: That’s true. That’s true. The politicians seem to just bring this up when– in other situations. Not a lot of questions there, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: No. Even about climate change or global warming or any of these things. Or your state’s going to be underwater, what are you going to do about it?

BROOKE BOREL: I know. It has such an effect on policy. So it’s kind of a shame.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. There was this organization called Science Debate 2008, you mentioned 2008, they tried to get something going. And now these many years later, they’re still trying to get some questions into the debates. And maybe when they narrow down the field and want something subsitant– substantive– excuse me for my cold– they’ll get there.

Let’s talk finally about– make sure I have this right. This is a story about a death by cow. Am I getting that?

BROOKE BOREL: You’re getting that right. Yeah, this is actually– I saw this on the blog on Inkfish at Discover by Elizabeth Preston. It’s a great blog. She wrote about this study from the University of Liverpool. So these scientists had noticed cases where people were getting killed by cows, or hurt by cows when they’re out on walks in the countryside. So these scientists decided to dig into the literature.

They went into scientific reports and also newspaper reports looking for cow or bovine, and attack or injury. And they found all these different cases. Unsurprisingly, it’s more dangerous– cows are more dangerous if you work with them regularly. So farmers and vets and folks like that are in more danger of cows. But they did find 54 cow attacks on people since 1993, 13 of which caused people to die. So 13 cases where these cows killed these people.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. No tipping involved or any–

BROOKE BOREL: No tipping involved. Just hiking.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s fascinating. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

BROOKE BOREL: Yeah, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Brooke Borel is writes the “Modern Plagues” blog and has authored a book about bed bugs– I think we’re all going to get one of those copies now– called Infested. Now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing.


Because every story has a flip side. And here’s an interesting story you may have not heard about. Let’s say you have a data center. One of those rooms filled with the racks of computers that crunch numbers for businesses or help store your data in the cloud. What would happen if you dropped one in the ocean? I know you were thinking about that, right?

Well, Microsoft gave it a try. Is this crazy or is it cunning? Contributing producer Charles Bergquist is here with the soggy story. Welcome, Charles.


IRA FLATOW: What’s going on?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, this is a test by Microsoft. And as you said, they built a mini data center. This was a very small prototype, only one server rack. So imagine a rack about the size of a refrigerator or something, filled with computers.

They took one of those, put it inside a big steel tube, and sunk it in the ocean about 30 feet down, just off the coast of San Luis Obispo in California.

IRA FLATOW: Because they could?


IRA FLATOW: What is the real reason?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Because it was there. But they give three reasons that they tried this. The first one is, if anybody’s ever been in a big computer room, you know that computers like to be kept cool. And so by putting the data center in the cool ocean water, they could get that cooling without having to pay the AC bill.

IRA FLATOW: Or create all kinds of pipes and things, and cooling systems, and stuff like that.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Right. The big tube that they put the computers in basically had some radiator fins on the outside. And so it was just giving the heat off into the ocean water around the tube.

IRA FLATOW: How big is it? Give us an idea of what it weighs.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: It’s about 10 feet long by the 7 feet across. It’s a big cylinder.

IRA FLATOW: And it weighs– must be pretty heavy.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: It’s about 38,000 pounds or something.

IRA FLATOW: Whoa. And so you have to run a power cable to it, right?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this one, it was connected by a power cable to the shore. They’re hoping that if they keep going with this concept, in the future they might be able to use some sort of renewable energy, maybe tidal power or wave power, to lessen the need for that shore connection. Of course, you would still need a data connection to get the information to and from the data center.

IRA FLATOW: That seems like a good idea. If you want to save money on your cooling bill, just stick it in the ocean, let the ocean do the cooling. What could be the bad thing about this?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, one of their engineers likened it sort of to launching a satellite. If you’re putting this thing down in the ocean, you’re not going to want to mess with it. So they’re planning this whole thing to be running without anybody touching it for maybe five years at a time. So that takes some engineering in terms of planning for redundancy, and what happens when something fails, and what happens if I need to reboot it. Things like that.

But in terms of the advantages, they’re thinking in addition to the cooling, if they do this, they can basically mass produce these things. Instead of needing to build a data center, and find a building, and hire the HVAC guys, and the plumbers, and hire people. They can just– this one they were able to construct and drop in 90 days.

IRA FLATOW: Is it still down there?


IRA FLATOW: Is it a test?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: This was just a test. It was down there for about three months. Then they pulled it out. And they’re considering doing a larger scale one a little bit down the road.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, you don’t have to drop it in the ocean. You have a big lake nearby. You could do it there, right?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Right. They point out that so much of the earth’s population is near some large body of water, either the coast or a lake, so this might be an option for the Great Lakes as well.

IRA FLATOW: But it’s going to heat up the water a little, isn’t it?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. I mean, there are definitely environmental concerns, especially if they build bigger ones of these and drop lots more of them. But they say that they were able to measure just very little heating just a couple inches away from the tube itself. So they’re thinking that the heating is probably not a major concern.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Fascinating new idea. Thank you, Charles.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You’re welcome, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Contributing producer Charles Bergquist.

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Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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