There are bugs, and then there are superbugs. But despite how its name may sound, a superbug isn’t an insect at all. The term refers instead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

cockroach research
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Species of these bacteria are proliferating and becoming a significant concern for medical personnel and health officials everywhere. Unlikely as it may seem, however, cockroaches may actually hold the key to combating these potentially deadly infections.

Why study cockroaches? 

These pests are among the most successful forms of life on the planet. They’ve survived Ice Ages and mass extinctions, and are thought to be almost 100 million years older than the dinosaurs.

Cockroaches live on almost every continent and are resistant to both extreme hot and cold temperatures to a certain degree, and experiments have even confirmed that they can remain active longer than humans under deadly levels of radiation associated with nuclear fallout. Cockroaches also like moisture, so leaking pipes or areas in which sewage has a chance to collect can create an attractive habitat.

The cockroach central nervous system has many natural defenses

Exploration of traditional sources for antibiotic medications, such as in the Amazon rainforest, have become more expensive, yet yield fewer and fewer candidates suitable for mass pharmaceutical production. That's why some scientists have instead spent the past decade or so digging into brains extracted from specimens of the American cockroach.

In 2010, at a meeting of the Society for General Microbiology in the United Kingdom, lead researcher Simon Lee announced a remarkable discovery. The central nervous system of certain cockroaches is protected by nine separate anti-microbial substances. The central nervous system is the cockroach’s most valuable and vulnerable resource. While human beings are armored with vertebrae and a skull, cockroaches favor hormonal defenses.

In laboratory tests, even diluted compounds containing these protective anti-microbial chemicals killed 90 percent of the bacteria with which they came into contact. The surrounding healthy tissues remained unaffected.

Cockroaches are resistant to many superbugs, but we still need pest control

Scientists still have many questions regarding exactly how the cockroach’s natural defenses eradicate superbugs. Moreover, analysis of the actual molecular structure of these antibacterial chemicals is ongoing. But the initial results have been very promising.

Those laboratory tests focused on two of the most difficult superbugs to control: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and Escherichia coli, or E. coli. A 90 percent success rate against these superbugs is virtually unprecedented — and all thanks to cockroaches.

Western scientists aren't alone in showing a new interest in cockroaches. American cockroach farming is an increasingly lucrative business in some regions of China, as pharmaceutical companies in that country incorporate powdered critters into topical ointments, pills, liquid formulas and any number of other traditional medicines.

Of course, the news is not all good. Cockroach infestations are still disgusting to most individuals, and can be both destructive and potentially bad for your health.

Cockroaches love to nibble on paper and natural fabrics as much as they like to snack on our crumbs and leftovers. Even if they aren’t chewing up books, newspapers, wallpaper and old rags, cockroaches make a huge mess. They drool, secrete foul-smelling odors and shed their skins periodically.

All of this waste can adversely affect individuals with certain allergies, and make life for those suffering from asthma more difficult. Furthermore, as the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences reminds us, “Cockroaches contaminate far more food than they are able to eat… disease-causing organisms are carried on the legs and bodies of cockroaches, and are deposited on food and utensils as cockroaches forage.”

So, while cockroaches may end up helping as much as they harm humankind, careful control of their populations probably remains in everyone’s best interest. Contact the professionals at Terminix to help you control cockroach populations and protect your home from cockroach infestations.