Magazine article The New Yorker

Old Bugs

Magazine article The New Yorker

Old Bugs

Article excerpt


Alot of people are grossed out by cockroaches. They think they're dirty and disgusting, and if they see one scuttling across the floor they reach for a can of Raid, or maybe they roll up a magazine and whack it, so that its innards spill out through its abdomen. George Amato, the director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, at the American Museum of Natural History, sees roaches differently.

"There's this notion that a lot of people have that there are good living things and bad living things," he said. "But they all just evolved on this planet, like everything else." Well, not exactly like everything else. "If you cut cockroaches' heads off, they still walk around for a long time, functioning O.K., except that they don't have any way to eat," Amato observed.

Cockroaches are survivors. They, or their roachlike ancestors, have been around since the Carboniferous period, which means that they've crawled through not just one or two but three major mass extinctions. For the past two hundred million years, the cockroach body plan has remained essentially unchanged. This means that the roaches that scurried under the dinosaurs of Mongolia looked pretty much the same as the ones now scurrying under the dumpsters of Manhattan.

A couple of years ago, Amato and his colleagues at the Sackler Institute set out to sequence the genome of the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. The work is part of a larger project to explore the genetics of long-lived lineages, or so-called "living fossils." (Other living fossils whose genomes the team is working on are the bedbug, Cimex lectularius, and the European leech, Hirudo medicinalis.) The first of these genomes is about to be published, and so the other day Amato and a few of his colleagues gathered to chat about the project. Someone had brought a plastic cockroach, which, though obviously fake, still struck a visitor as repulsive. Someone else had brought along two vials of ground-up leeches.

"Cockroaches are cool," Mark Siddall, a principal investigator at the institute, said. "They're one of the very first examples of powered flight."

Amato explained that the goal of the living-fossil project is to press back as far as possible into evolutionary history. "It really is like looking backward in time," he said.

Of course, just because cockroaches (or bedbugs) appear unchanged doesn't mean that they are. …

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