Mind over Marrowbone: Citizen Science Tests Canine Smarts

Deep Thinker?
Photo by Nathan Yergler. CC By-SA 3.0.

Want to test your dog’s thinking style? Put two treats on the ground on either side of you and point to one of them as you call. The piece gobbled first sheds light on whether your pooch is more of an independent or a social problem-solver. Dognition, a new website created by Duke University professors Brian Hare and Kip Frey uses the results of such games to collect data on various aspects of canine cognition while giving dog owners insights on how their pets think. (See here for specific instructions on the test above.)

As the website explains, citizen science allows researchers to gather large amounts of data to better understand the thinking processes of dogs across many different breeds and locations. For a fee of $39.00, dog owners can learn if their furry companion is more of an Einstein, a Stargazer, or a Socialite (or fits into one of six other profiles).

Frey teaches at Duke’s Law School and School of Public Policy. Hare is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and founder of Duke’s Canine Cogntion Center. His new book is The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think (Dutton).

Longevity: Cold Plays a Role in the Genes

If you’ve had to scrape ice off your windshield morning after morning, and are looking for a reason to appreciate winter, you may want to consider the research of University of Michigan scientists, which explains a link between cold environments and longer lifespans (published here in the journal Cell).

While it’s no secret to scientists that cold-blooded creatures (including worms and fish) experience greater longevity in cold places, U-M scientists have just discovered through a study of roundworms the genetic program that makes this possible. The same program is found in humans and other warm-blooded animals.

“This raises the intriguing possibility that exposure to cold air—or pharmacological stimulation of the cold-sensitive genetic program—may promote longevity in mammals,” said Shawn Xu, LSI faculty member and the Bernard W. Agranoff Collegiate Professor in the Life Sciences at the U-M Medical School.

via University of Michigan News Service | Stay cool and live longer?.

Love 2.0: It’s All in the Micro-Moments, Says Scientist

At the grocery store last night, I came across three young men in the card aisle picking out valentines for their partners. They were mocking the selections. But behind the snarky comments, I smelled panic: Which of the $3.50 sentiments lined up before them—drippy, steamy, cheesy, or downright Elizabethan—would lock in the love that they (and we all) crave? Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the biological effects of positive emotions, would have us adopt a healthier attitude toward Valentine’s Day and love in general. I spoke to her earlier about her new book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Hudson Street/Penguin).

“I think that this new perspective on love will help us cut through the parts of Valentine’s Day that seem kind of difficult and forced and focus on what love really is,” she says. It’s a myth that love is “a lightning bolt that hits you one day and forever you’re in that state.” Rather, love is made of “micro-moments of shared connection,” or what she refers to as “positivity resonance.” And rather than being exclusive to a romantic partner, she points out, these moments can be experienced with all kinds of people in our lives, from our neighbors to the coworker in the next cubicle. (No jokes about The Office, please.)

Some of Fredrickson’s ideas on love and interconnectedness would nestle nicely into long-established religious traditions, and she cites various teachings in her book. But with colleagues in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, Fredrickson goes on to measure the physical benefits of these shared micro-moments, which she likens to nutrients for the body.

In one study, published in Psychological Science and described here in The Economist, researchers taught volunteers meditation skills to help them generate more moments of positive connection. “When they do that, they experience more of them and objective [health] markers like cardiac vagal tone improve,” Fredrickson says. Now her lab is looking at gene expression and how positive connections can change the body at the cellular level to help fight disease. (See the lab’s publications page for links to more studies.)

If love is so good for us, I wondered, why do we often miss these moments of connection? Fredrickson cites our reliance on technology. These micro-moments start with trust and a real-time sensory connection. (You can’t make eye-contact when you’re texting someone.) “The other reason is time pressure,” she says. While she’s talking on the phone with me, she admits to packing her bag to get ready for work. “Having that frenetic pace of today’s contemporary society really gets in the way of slowing down enough to connect with what we could be feeling with another. It’s a casualty of our contemporary world pace. We’re racing around at the speed of the mind when it’s like we need to feel these things at the slower speed of the heart.”

To give an example of what the pace of love looks like, Fredrickson described a recent conversation with a friend who’s dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “And I was just encouraging her to slow down and take care of herself, and we were connecting over the understanding of what each other was going through—me trying to offer support and her receiving it. It was a meaningful emotional connection.”

In another example, she described a woman whose disappointments made her cynical about romantic love. “The next week she wrote me to thank me for my ideas, [saying] ‘They really freed me somehow.’” By changing her expectations about what love was, Fredrickson says, “She was able to connect with people in her everyday life.”

That’s not to leave romantic relationships out of the picture entirely. According to Fredrickson, “We all know we shouldn’t take our loving relationships for granted. We should be attending to them and trying to make our partners feel valued and cherished,” she says. “These micromoments of shared positivity [are also] the building blocks of a strong resilient marriage.”

Kindness: Doing for Others Has Benefits for Children

Helping hand.
Photo by Mandajuice. Creative Commons.

Whether they’re greeting their grandparents or helping a neighbor cross the street, pre-adolescents who perform acts of kindness may increase their well-being and their popularity, according to a study by researchers at University of California-Riverside and the University of British Columbia. Results appear here in PLOS One.

Kristin Layous, a graduate student in the psychology department at UC-Riverside, discussed the results of the study, which she conducted with S. Katherine Nelson, Eva Oberle, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl. (Lyubomirsky, her advisor, is author of the positive psychology guide The How of Happiness.)

Layous says she and her team knew from previous studies that kindness interventions were linked to greater well-being in adult populations, but they wanted to know if they would also work among pre-adolescents. It seemed a good age to try because tweens “have gained some perspective taking ability and empathy,” she says. “They are able to put themselves into their classmates’ shoes.”

They also decided to see if the students experienced gains in peer acceptance. “There is a perceived popularity, which is more akin to materialism—someone who has money or ‘rules the school’—and there is more sociometric popularity, where 9 out of 10 children in a classroom like this person. We were trying to tap into that second type of popularity [by asking] ‘Do you want to be in school activities with that person?’”

In their study, 9-to-11 year olds in 19 Vancouver classrooms were randomly assigned to either a kindness intervention or a pleasant activity. The kindness group was prompted to perform three acts of kindness each week over a four-week period. The control group was told to visit three different places each week—from the zoo to a grandparent’s house—and track their whereabouts.

Both groups saw similar improvements in well-being (according to self-reported scales), but the kindness group picked up more friends. Students in the kindness group gained an average of 1.5 friends, while control-group participants gained .68.

While the study was not set up to look at the cause of these changes, Layous speculates that they could be partly due to the activities “putting out positive energy into the classroom” and enabling students “to see more positive experiences around them.”

They plan to delve deeper into the data to see how kindness activities changed individuals’ social networks. For example, says Layous, they’d like to know: “Would one person who already has seven friends boost that up to nine? Or did the person who had zero friends get a few more? The ideal would be that it worked for everybody.”

While the “downstream” benefits of prosocial behavior (such as popularity) are interesting to her, Layous says her main focus is on general well-being. For future studies, she says, “My advisor and I are really interested in the conditions under which these activities are effective. Does it work better if they do it once a week or a couple times a week? If they start out at a certain baseline of happiness or if they have a little room for improvement?” Layous also hopes to study the effect of prosocial activities among different age groups, cultures, and life circumstances (such as among those suffering from chronic diseases).

Jurassic Music: Recreating the Ancient Sounds of Katydid Courtship

“The Serenade.” (1629) Artist: Judith Leyster. Public Domain.

One hundred and sixty-five million years ago, China’s forests were filled with the baritone serenades of male katydids. By analyzing the fossilized wings of an extinct species named Archaboilus musicus, researchers have reconstructed its acoustic signals. Their findings appear here in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Jun-Jie Gu, of Capital Normal University in Beijing, and Fernando Montealegre Zapata, of University of Bristol, led the research team.)

According to the article, most (though not all) katydid species alive today have asymmetrical forewings. Males in search of females produce noisy calls across a range of frequencies by scraping a toothed vein, called the stridulatory file, on the left wing across another vein (the plectrum) on the right wing.

A. musicus, in contrast, had large symmetrical forewings (each with a stridulatory file) that worked together to produce pure-tone “musical” songs at a low frequencies that could be heard over a long distance close to the ground. Like extant katydids which make pure-tone music, A. musicus probably did its serenading at night, the article states.

“In the darkness of the Jurassic forest, A. musicus surely experienced the dilemma of singing loud and clear, while simultaneously attempting to avoid nocturnal predators,” the researchers add. “We cannot rule out the possibility that Jurassic mammals (e.g. Morganucodon and Dryolestes) might have been predators of these insects, as they were able to hear sounds in the range of frequencies used by A. musicus.”

In a commentary for PNAS, University of Bonn paleontologist Jes Rust praised the research for showing “the great potential of paleoacoustic studies.” According to Rust, “Their results considerably enrich our imagination of Jurassic ecosystems, which is usually dominated by the popular dinosaurs. However, whereas these roaring pop stars have left the stage, the background vocals of insect ‘choristers’ are still there.”

Imprisoned: How Inmates in Early American Jails Resisted Control

“Hope in a Prison of Despair.” Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919). Public Domain.

From its opening in 1829, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary was meant to serve as a fortress of reform, behind which inmates prepared to reenter society through hard work, clean habits, and penitent solitude. With scarce contact from others (aside from clergy and prison officials), went the theory, inmates would have plenty of time to mull over their misdeeds. But prisoner David Anderson was having none of this isolation. Repeatedly, he climbed on top of the loom where he was supposed to be weaving in order to reach the prison’s soaring skylight and speak through it to other inmates. He kept up this practice until he fell and broke his leg. Anderson’s efforts to flout the system’s rules were far from unusual, according to Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America (The University of Georgia Press).

Edited by Michele Lise Tarter, associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey, and Richard Bell, assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland-College Park, this new essay collection examines various ways that incarcerated men and women in early America resisted control by their jailers and challenged the penal system.

Eastern State Penitentiary.
Photo by Thesab. Wikimedia Commons.

“No matter the setting, inmates’ defiance—prompted by a variety of motives—often thwarted the purpose of punishment,” the editors write in their introduction. “At times, their behavior served to exacerbate existing structural weaknesses, exposing fault lines that could bring penal institutions to the verge of collapse. On other occasions inmates imposed their own disciplinary imperatives to contrast and compete with those forced upon them by their keepers.”

Writing about Eastern State Penitentiary, Villanova University historian Jennifer Lawrence Janofsky, shows how prisoners challenged reformers’ intentions by exploiting weaknesses in the building and its management. “Burrowing holes between cells took considerable time, but for prisoners who had nothing but time, the opportunity for human interaction was worth the risk,” she writes. “Nails, hammers, and pieces of iron, intended for shoemaking, became the tools of resistance as prisoners tenaciously attacked the walls, determined to communicate with their neighbors.” Others nudged notes through the plumbing pipes.

Sometimes imprisonment had the unintended effect of blurring racial lines as inmates cooperated in plans of escape. Susan Eva O’Donovan, associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, describes how an enslaved man named Bill broke out of his shackles in a Georgia jail in 1855 and went on to free a half-dozen other inmates, both black and white. The group then shimmied down blankets after squeezing through a hole in the upper-story wall.

Contacts forged behind bars also exposed Southern slaves to “powerful and potentially leveling ideas” and practical knowledge that was sometimes used in future bids for freedom, O’Donovan adds. For example, when Anthony Burns, a runaway slave, was caught and lodged in a Richmond jail, he was able to describe his taste of freedom up North and share escape tactics with his prison neighbors (talking through a hole he made in the floor of his cell).

“Burns relayed accounts of the places he had seen to the inmates below,” O’Donovan writes. “He told his audience of the people he had met. He warned them of the perils that must be avoided … Burns performed, in short, as the slaves’ “Columbus,” the explorer home from foreign shores, eager to share what he had heard and learned and observed while living beyond the horizon.”

Getting sent to the Philadelphia Almshouse—or seeking admission as a last resort in hard times—was another form of imprisonment for some early Americans. Despite its locked gates, work rules, and punishments for noncompliance (in a special cell called the “black hole”), inmates still found ways to exert some autonomy, according to essays by Jacqueline Cahif (University of Cambridge), Simon P. Newman (University of Glasgow), and Billy G. Smith (Montana State University).

For instance, though release from the Almshouse had to be approved by the steward, many men and women took it upon themselves to leave after receiving what the institution had to offer, be it clothing or medical care. Some came and went repeatedly. A septuagenarian named Matthew Richards climbed over the fence, “presumably in search of rum,” only to be returned to the Almshouse in a cart and flee yet again, write Newman and Smith.

Others sought seasonal shelter in the facility, combining their need to survive with a drive for self-determination: “Like numerous other indigents, Philip and Sarah Haines ‘entered as usual to be fed and kept warm during the winter and jump the fence in the spring.’ Sarah, complained the clerk “is as good at fence jumping as [Philip] is.’”

Prostitutes who entered the Almshouse for syphilis treatment also vexed their keepers by going back out to practice their trade. Between 1790 and 1799, more than half of them, on average, left without permission, Cahif writes.

Those who did remain in the so-called “polishing ward” found other ways to defy the system. When Jane Bickerdite, a former patient, became a ward nurse, for instance, the other patients balked at her new alliance with authority. “They mobbed her severely,” wrote the steward, “and raised a Bawling Clamerous noise & Clanger with … Rattling Frying pans after her, all of which together, they called the Whoars march, and of which Doubtless they are competent judges … as every step they have taken for several years have been in line and true to the Beat.”

Those were the words of the women’s keeper. But Buried Lives also devotes several essays to exploring how prisoners commented on the institutions that contained them.

Through a variety of sources cited in this book, from confessions to petitions to newspaper articles, the reader is exposed to inmates’ perspectives. “In their pages,” Tarter and Bell write, “we find the many voices of the captive and imprisoned in early America: vicious men, calculating women, diffident drunks, runaway slaves, immigrant workers, homeless children, victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and above all, the vagrant, the poor and the enslaved.”

Images of Freedom: Photo Collection Shows the Faces of Emancipation

Unidentified African American soldier with wife and two daughters. (1863-1865) Ambrotype. Library of Congress.

When Deborah Willis studied the Civil War era as a teenager back in the 1960s, she recalls, her school lessons stuck to a single narrative: “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.” The photographic collection in a new book by Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press), presents a more complex picture of the freedom story.  (I got in touch with Willis and Krauthamer after reading about their book in this post on KolorBlind Mag.)

Most of the book’s 150 images date from the 1850s, a decade before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, to the 1930s. As a whole, the photographs and accompanying text show African Americans as agents in their emancipation: We see a teenage girl, posed in a big bell of a skirt, who had once disguised herself as a boy to flee slavery. An old man with a lifetime of stories written in his eyes holds up a slave-calling horn he doesn’t have to answer.  Sojourner Truth displays a daguerrotype of her grandson in Civil War uniform, calling attention to what’s at stake in the abolitionist cause. We also see the work of African-American photographers. One of them, Augustus Washington, was active in the anti-slavery movement before his emigration to Liberia.

For Willis, who is professor and chair of photography and imaging in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, it was an eye-opening experience to read the letters and diaries of soldiers, mothers, teachers, and other African Americans who took part in the struggle for Emancipation—“to hear their voices about their hopes and dreams for their loved ones,” she says. “The multiple narratives really expanded my idea of the lived experience of slavery [and new-found freedom].”

Nursemaid with child. ca. 1855. Ruby ambrotype, handpainted.
Library of Congress.

“What we wanted to show through the book was people’s dignity and sense of their own strengths and potential to shape the future,” adds Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. African Americans “were intellectually and philosophically engaged in the major political and social issues of the day.”

But that point didn’t come across in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie Lincoln, Krauthamer argues in this opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The film’s depiction of Emancipation largely excludes African-American women and men as anything other than the patient and grateful recipients of the gift of freedom,” she writes. “This is, of course, Spielberg’s prerogative as a filmmaker.”

Some of the photographs in Envisioning Emancipation were taken to support abolitionist causes. (Activist Sojourner Truth, for example, sold her portraits for 33 and 50 cents, which she referred to as “living on my shadow.”) Others were personal mementos, purchased by free African-Americans who could finally exercise some control over how they were presented. The laundress who appears on the book’s cover has a small American flag pinned to her dress in a nod to her patriotism. “When we look at these photographs, we see full human-beings,” Willis says. “They were creating their own biographies through these images.”

Not everyone had this chance, of course. Haunting the book are daguerrotypes of African Americans whose bodies were exposed for scientific study. Enslaved nursemaids are pictured holding white children in their laps. While the latter women served as human “restraints” for wiggling subjects, their presence also showed off the wealth of the white families who owned them, Krauthamer notes. She wonders what became of the women’s own children, if they had them. “Did they lose them to sale?”  What would it be like, she asks, “to be holding someone else’s child and wondering where is your own child?” The book contrasts those images with post-Emancipation portraits of older women with adult children and freeborn grandchildren. “How powerful an experience it must have been to pose with your own family,” she says.

Emancipation Day, Richmond, Va. ca. 1905.
Library of Congress.

Krauthamer and Willis became interested in this book project when they came across a small photograph of a woman in a white kerchief named “Dolly.” Her picture was pasted onto a $50 Reward notice that her master, Louis Manigault, created after she ran away from his Augusta, Georgia, plantation in 1863. Reflecting on her attractiveness and her “fine set of teeth,” Manigault seems to puzzle over why she left him. It is unclear why he possessed a picture of her. “We both thought that was a story that needed to be explored,” Willis says. Though some of the stories raise more questions than historians can answer, “these images allow us to connect to people whose lives would be lost [to us otherwise],” Krauthamer says.

Their book asks: “What did [Dolly] envision when she planned her escape? What did she see around her when she stepped outside her master’s yard and closed the gate behind her? When we look at her picture we see her life in slavery, but we also recognize that the picture is a testament to her liberation.”

In the end, Willis hopes their readers will find “a much more nuanced story about slavery. Not just the top down, but the fact that black people were actively involved in obtaining their freedom,” she says. “That’s what I want people to walk away with, because I didn’t know it when I was in high school.”

Insect Navigation: Dung Beetles and the Starry, Starry Night

Panoramic image of the Milky Way.
European Southern Observatory/S. Brunier. Creative Commons.

Just as sailors once followed the stars to distant lands, dung beetles can use starry skies to navigate, according to an article published in the January 23 issue of Current Biology.

A research team led by Marie Dacke, a biologist at Sweden’s Lund University, conducted their experiments in the Johannesburg planetarium, which was fully darkened as well as illuminated with projections of the Milky Way and other stars.

As reported here in ScienceNews,

Dung-rolling insects are excellent for studying navigation because they collect their prized food source and single-mindedly roll it as directly as possible away from competitors and predators. Putting the beetles in weird get-ups during experiments doesn’t deter them. “They are so attached to their dung balls,” Dacke says, “that under all circumstances they just want to roll the ball in a straight line.”

via Dung beetles steer by the Milky Way | Zoology | Science News.

Dung beetle (Circellium bacchus.) There are thousands of species of dung beetles. Scarabaeus satyrus was the species used in the starlight experiment.
By Kay-Africa. Wikipedia Commons.

Immunotherapy: In a Nutshell, Possible Treatment for Peanut Allergy

Deep-fried peanuts.
By Mr. Atoz. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When our youngest daughter was a year old, we decided to introduce her to some more interesting table foods. One night at dinner, I gave her a spoonful of chicken cooked with ginger, soy sauce, brown sugar, and peanut butter. I thought she might protest. What I didn’t expect were swollen cheeks and husky breathing.

Minutes later, lights flashed in our driveway and half a dozen men in blue crammed into our living room to check our daughter’s vital signs. I was relieved, if a bit sheepish: No treatment was needed after all. But later tests revealed a mild to moderate peanut allergy, and so we joined the ranks of Epi-Pen-toting parents.

Currently there is no approved treatment for peanut allergy. As a result patients or their parents must carefully monitor diets and carry around lifesaving doses of epinephrine (used in cases of accidental ingestion to treat a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis). However, a recent double-blind, multicenter study (reported here in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) shows that sublingual immunotherapy might be a way to prevent allergic reactions.

Dr. Wesley Burks, professor and chair of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the study’s lead author (along with Dr. David Fleischer of National Jewish Health in Denver), discussed the results with me:

In 20 percent of cases, Burks explains, children who acquire a peanut allergy in the first years of life will eventually outgrow it. But it’s hard to predict who will leave the allergy behind, or what will be the severity of side effects. “There’s certainly anxiety inherent in a diagnosis because of the [uncertaity] of what future reactions might be like,” says Burks.

“The prevalence of peanut allergies has changed so much in the last two decades that it has become more important to find a treatment,” he adds. “Only recently though has [sublingual immunotherapy (or SLIT)] been used with appropriate dosing that could be used for peanut allergy.” (SLIT has previously been used to treat a range of allergies, from milk to peaches.)

SLIT works by desensitizing the patient to the allergen over time. In this study, patients were exposed over many weeks to tiny (and gradually increasing) daily doses of peanut powder in a liquid that was squirted into the mouth and held under the tongue for two minutes before swallowing. That time in the mouth is key, explains Burks, because mucous membranes there give the allergen rapid entry into the body’s immune system.

(Subcutaneous immunotherapy, which uses injections, is another treatment option for some kinds of allergies, but it has not been found to be safe in the case of peanut. According to Burks, studies were stopped in the 1990s because of significant side effects.)

At the beginning of the SLIT study Burks took part in, 40 subjects with peanut allergy were given an oral food challenge of up to 2 grams of peanut powder to see how much they could tolerate. Then subjects were randomly assigned to receive either peanut SLIT or a placebo. At the end of a 44-week period, the patients were given another food challenge. Those who could safely consume 5 g, or at least 10-fold more peanut powder compared to their baseline, were considered “responders.” In the SLIT group, 70 percent were responders, compared to just 15 percent of the placebo group. Among responders, the median consumption of peanut powder rose from 3.5 to 496 milligrams. Following 68 weeks of treatment, median consumption climbed to 996 milligrams, or about the equivalent of three peanuts.

That doesn’t sound like much (and indeed, immunotherapy is no invitation to start snacking on Snickers bars). But it’s significant to allergy sufferers. According to Burks, an allergic reaction typically happens to less than one third of a peanut. (Trace amounts can find their way into foods prepared in factories, kitchens, or restaurants where peanuts are used. “In theory, you could take a daily dose and it could protect you from most accidental interactions,” he says.

“What we don’t know is the dosing ranges and how long to treat someone to make it permanent—or even if we can make it permanent,” Burks adds. “What needs to happen are more studies, using more people, in different dosing regimens.”

Infestation: Biopesticide Shows Promise for Bed Bug Sufferers

Discarded mattress. By Jamie Drummond. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I wanted the journalism experience. That’s why I took an unpaid internship in Washington, D.C., before my senior year of college. As an added bonus that summer, I picked up a case of head-to-toe “bird lice” from the well-traveled futon in the apartment I was subletting. (Not sure where the bird ever was.) Ever since, I have suffered a mild case of what I’ll call FTTCM—fear of tiny things crawling on me. Considering my personal history, it may not have been the best idea for me to get in touch with bedbug expert Nina Jenkins last month. But for the sake of science, I had to give her a call.

Jenkins, senior research associate in entomology, and her colleagues at Pennsylvania State University (Alexis Barbarin, formerly a postgraduate student and now a post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania, and entomology professors Edwin Rajotte and Matthew Thomas), have found a natural fungal biopesticide to deal with these pests. The results of their study on the effectiveness of Beauveria bassiana appear in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.

Because of bed bugs’ growing resistance to chemical pesticides, it has become very difficult to get rid of them, Jenkins tells me. “They’ve become a huge problem in city areas: Philadelphia, New York City, and Cincinnati are all in the news for having a high prevalence of bed bugs in hotels and private housing.” (Gulp. I lived in Philadelphia not too long ago. And so did my bed.)

The bites of bloodthirsty bed bugs itch like mosquito bites do. And though there is no evidence that these bugs transmit diseases, they are very inconvenient to have around. “I think a lot of psychological damage goes with that,” Jenkins says. (Not that I would know anything about this.)

“The key to really addressing a bed bug infestation is getting to the harborage (where they bed down), which is otherwise inaccessible to chemicals,” Jenkins explains. “There are so many little cracks and crevices where the populations can hide out. Unless you can physically get them with a chemical, they remain unaffected.”

But bed bugs walk on bent tarsi (tiny “hooks” that make it easy for them to climb up soft furniture and frolic on your futon), so very little of their body makes contact with a surface that’s been sprayed with traditional pesticides. What this means is that little pesticide residue makes it back to the harborage.

The Penn State researchers conducted their tests using an oil spray containing B. bassiana on paper and on cloth. Though the spray is invisible when dry, it distributes enough fungal spores throughout the treated material to make it highly effective against bed bugs.

Once these spores come into contact with the cuticle of the bed bug, they germinate and bore through the epidermis, gradually reaching the hemocoel (body cavity containing the digestive and blood centers), where they do their damage. In the meantime, the insects carry the spores back to their nesting sites, infecting others.

In the Penn State experiment, three groups of ten bed bugs were placed on one of the two treated surfaces or on an untreated (control) surface for one hour. All of the exposed bed bugs died within five days. (As little as a minute of exposure appears to be fatal to the bed bugs, Jenkins says.)

Since their data has been released, Jenkins says they’ve been inundated with calls from long-term care facilities and home-renters who are desperate for a natural and effective way to control bed bugs. (They’ll have to wait while Jenkins and her colleagues do more tests and look for the best ways to bring the fungicide to the marketplace.)

Don’t expect treated sheets, however. Instead, Jenkins expects that a commercially available spray would go around light switches and on baseboards and bedskirts. “This will form a barrier over which bed bugs will have to crawl to find a blood meal.”

Trying to control my own urge to itch, I ask Jenkins if the work ever bugs her. She admits that she does get that skin-crawling feeling at times when she’s working in the lab. That’s because mixed bed-bug populations are hard to spot and keep track of: The adults resemble flattened apple pits, whereas the youngest “first instar” bed bugs are “tiny little dots.”

“Our best joke,” she says, is to announce, “‘Three or four of them escaped! And we’re not sure where they are!’ Everyone freaks out.” I know how they feel.