An automated louse feeder

Recently, someone wrote to Skepchick and declared: “Creativity will never come from the skeptics corner.”

This is someone who clearly hasn’t actually practiced science, because every single project I’ve ever been involved with has involved scrounging, scavenging, jury-rigging, prototyping, and tinkering to come up with needed equipment and protocols.  Science is intensely creative.

Last week I happened to stumble across an article that demonstrates that creativity, and as a bonus, it’s about lice!  Lice continue to be a big hit at the Bug Blog, with the posts on pubic lice getting the top hits most days.licefeeder

This nifty little paper describes some inventive entomological engineering related to lice:

“An automated feeding apparatus was developed to maintain the human head louse Pediculus capitis DeGeer) in vitro. With the use of valves and timers, banked human blood and saline from refrigerated reservoirs were pumped into and flushed out of the system every 7 d. During this rotational interval, bloodmeals were provided to head lice continuously…through a stretched Nescofilm-silicone sandwich membrane.”

This might not seem like a big deal, but in order to research an insect, you need a reliable, uniform supply of it.  Experimenting on insects of random ages or nutritional status makes it hard to say whether or not your treatment was the reason for changes seen.

So, entomologists have invented a variety of clever ways to feed and rear lice, mosquitoes, bed bugs, and a whole host of other blood-feeding insects in order to study them.  One common way to rear lice is to  strap them to your leg in a container.

Not many people will volunteer to host your research colony of head lice or the other colonies of lice you might have around the lab.  Obviously, the requirement that you “feed your own pets”  may also be an issue when trying to attract bright young graduate students and post-docs to your research lab.

Fortunately, it appears the inventive authors of this paper had some success, although the survival rate was probably not as high as they had hoped. It did, however, improve on an earlier system. And, bonus:

“Body lice (Pediculus humanus L.) and bed bugs (Cimex lectularius [L.]) also completed most of their life cycle on this apparatus.”

Those are definitely animals I’d rather not carry around in a tube on my leg so they can feed, thanks. Hopefully they will continue to refine their system in the future, and improve the survival rates.

The full citation is:

M. Takano-Lee, R. K. Velten, J. D. Edman, B. A. Mullens, and J. M. Clark. 2003. An Automated Feeding Apparatus for In Vitro Maintenance of the Human Head Louse, Pediculus capitis (Anoplura: Pediculidae).  J. Medical Entomology 40(6): 795-799.

5 thoughts on “An automated louse feeder

  1. I read on Slamboard that a researcher in the UK was offering to pay parents for the lice on their kids’ heads. One pound sterling per louse and he needed hundred of them.

  2. Argh! I keep disabling the word correct feature, and it keeps coming back. Good catch, moopet.

    Martin–the problem with collecting lice is that you know nothing about them. It’s like choosing 100 people randomly from the phone book to test a drug. Without detailed background info, it’s hard say what causes any effects you see.

    Having said that–I’d be tempted to let my kid’s stock of lice build up, at that price!

  3. There are fortunately more ways to get rid of them than there are machines designed to farm them! Can you imagine the inventors family members? A great dinner conversation at best.
    “So Bob, what are you up to at work these days”
    Bob replies,
    ” I’m a lice farmer”
    “Rice Farmer?
    “no” says Bob…” You heard correctly, A LICE farmer”

  4. Pingback: Time to feed the Bed Bugs « Bug Girl’s Blog

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