Edinburgh Infectious Diseases
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Breeding quirks of head lice offer insight into effective treatments

The findings could inform new ways to target both head and body lice, by exploiting how genes that help the insects resist treatment are transferred through generations.

Human head louse on hair

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh studied breeding in head and body lice to show how genes are passed from parents to their offspring in head and body lice. 

They found that males pass on only DNA from their mothers to their offspring, instead of a mixture of DNA from both parents as happens in most species.  Surprisingly, this had never been observed in head lice, despite decades of extensive research on this widespread pest.

Head lice, although relatively harmless, are widespread throughout societies around the world. Body lice, common in homeless or refugee populations, can spread severe diseases and present a serious risk to human health. Both types incur a heavy economic burden.

Many conventional chemical-based therapies that kill lice outright have become ineffective as lice have evolved to resist treatment.


These findings potentially offer a new approach to managing lice, by exploiting the unusual genetics involved when offspring inherit traits from their parents.”

Dr Laura RossLeader of the study in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences

These new discoveres could aid development of novel remedies targeting reproduction in both the head and body lice that infect humans.

For example, chemicals that affect the fertility of male insects could limit the extent to which treatment-resistant genes are inherited.

The study, published in the Medical and Veterinary Entomology Journal, was carried out with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre, National Environment Research Council and the Darwin Trust.

For further information, please contact:

Catriona Kelly, Press & PR office: 07791 355940; Catriona.Kelly@ed.ac.uk