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Burying beetle potentially making a splash in medical field

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The medical world may be getting some help from an unlikely friend in the future – the American Burying Beetle.

Once one of the most common insect species in North America, occurring in 35 states, the beetles can now only be found in seven. Oklahoma is on the short list of states where the American Burying Beetles still call home, with a strong population in the eastern portion of the state.

Recognizable by their black and orange colors, the night-active species can grow to about 2-inches long and occur primarily in forested areas. These beetles will find a small dead animal, like a mouse or bird, bury it in the ground and raise its offspring on it.

“The male and female will get underneath the dead animal and do pushups to see how much it weighs,” said Wyatt Hoback, assistant professor in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. “If it’s the right size, they’ll start digging a hole under there and the animal will fall into the hole.”

This is an impressive feat on its own, considering many times the animal being buried will weigh between 100 times to 200 times more than the beetles. That is the equivalent of a 200-pound man burying a 20,000-pound object, in about an hour.

After burial, the beetles remove hair or feathers and then coat the carcass with saliva, which prevents bacteria and fungi from growing. It is this fact Hoback, John Gustafson, head of OSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and University of New Mexico researcher, Immo Hansen, are most interested.

“We have dissected burying beetles and pulled their salivary glands,” Hoback said. “Now molecular analysis will be done in an attempt to determine which proteins are responsible for the antimicrobial activity.”

As the only federally endangered insect in the state, the American Burying Beetle could prove to be vitally important for many areas of the world.

“Someday we might be able to use it for treating human bacterial infections or as a preservative for meat at room temperature,” Hoback said. “That’s a huge issue worldwide … being able to preserve fresh meat without access to refrigeration.”

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