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'Maggot bombs' and malaria

UW professor studies bugs as weapons

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LARAMIE (AP) - Bombs made of bees? Don't doubt it.

The strategy was used centuries ago, and fighting factions have been using bugs to wage war ever since.

If this all seems foreign to you, that's because it hasn't been covered much in the history books, but that's about to change.

Jeff Lockwood, University of Wyoming professor of renewable resources, is finishing a book called "Swarm Wars," about entomological warfare, or how bugs have been used to fight battles.

The story starts back with the 10 plagues God inflicted upon the Egyptians in Exodus, but this seemingly primitive tactic of using bugs as weapons has been used by warriors well into the 20th century as well.

"At the turn of the 20th century, man started to understand that insects are the vector of disease," said Lockwood. "The Japanese, French, Germans, English and the United States all had entomological disease programs active during the golden years of 1930 to 1970."

Of particular note was the Japanese program during World War II, labeled Unit 731. This unit produced 50 million plague-infested fleas a month and used them on the Chinese. They also dropped cholera-coated flies, dubbed "maggot bombs," which killed as many people in China as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in Japan combined.

This is a major untold story, but Lockwood posits that is because the United States cut a deal with the Japanese unit not to try them as war criminals if they would share their information on insect weapons. The U.S. eventually settled on the use of yellow fever mosquitoes during the Cold War, and even dropped uninfected mosquitoes on its own citizens in parts of Georgia to test the frequency of bites.

Eventually, scientists came up with a method for transmitting the yellow fever into the larvae of mosquitoes, which would have greatly enhanced the delivery of the disease if the U.S. had ever used the bloodsuckers.

Wars may have turned because of the use of bugs and their byproducts. The Germans had bred the Colorado potato beetle to drop on England and decimate their crops, but they never got around to using them. Seems Hitler was opposed to the use of chemical and biological weapons because he fought in World War I and encountered mustard gas.

The Germans also feared the Allies were ahead of them on entomological research, so they developed heavy insecticides for their crops that were too powerful to use. This chemical was actually nerve gas, and the Germans were the only ones who possessed it at the time.

"The Germans could have put an end to Normandy if they would have used the gas, but Hitler didn't approve," said Lockwood.

Even in the 1980s, a so-called ecological eco-terrorist group named The Breeders was taking responsibility for a Medfly outbreak in California and demanded the state stop its insecticide program. Their gambit failed, but Lockwood said there were clues that the group may have had something to do with the outbreak.

The 10 plagues may not have happened as they are listed in the Bible, but Lockwood is relatively sure something happened.

"The events are described in the Book of Psalms and an Egyptian papyrus as well as the Bible, so something probably happened," said Lockwood. "Storytellers have a way of embellishing their work so that people will pay attention. The Bible suggests these plagues all happened in one year, but that is highly unlikely."

The first plague, the Nile River turning into blood, and the last one, the death of first-born children, are the only ones that seem odd for the time, said Lockwood. One possibility for the Nile turning red is a fatal microbial bloom. This could lead to the second plague, frogs, because they would leave the river if it was polluted.

Gnats come next, and they breed in damp, nutrient-rich soil along a waterway. If an algal bloom destroys their predators, biting midges, would flourish. Then stable flies, the fourth plague, could take advantage of the wet vegetation and dead fish and frogs. These flies feed on rotting organic matter.

Next are livestock diseases, which could have been spread by the biting midges. Boils are the sixth plague, and anthrax spread by stable flies could be the culprit.

Hail, the next plague, would foster vegetation growth that could lead to a smorgasbord for locust swarms. Locusts eat everything, leading to desolation and dust storms. These storms may be the darkness referred to as the ninth plague.

The last plague could have been the result of biological forces. The Egyptian grain storage system was vulnerable to moisture, meaning the top layer would get wet. If insects defecated on the grain, there would be thin layer of dust containing nutrients and fungal spores that could have led to mold developing a lethal toxin, said Lockwood.

The first scoop of grain always went to the firstborn, and that might explain the tenth plague, though no one knows why this would have happened at exactly that period in time.

One need not believe the description in the Bible to ask historical and scientific questions about these events, said Lockwood.

"In some ways, this is a dark story, because it is about how humans use insects to wage war," said Lockwood. "But every time a scientific discovery is made, there are two ways that we might use it."

In the 1990s, a Montana man discovered that bees are good at detecting land mines. You can condition a bee to associate a certain smell with a reward, much like Pavlov's dog. This man accomplished that with TNT, and now he hopes the discovery will hope those in the developing world, where most of the land mines exist, can use this low-cost method.

"Science is never value-free," said Lockwood. "It pays for us to look seriously at how we want to use what we know."

Apartheid South Africa was considering developing ethnic genetic weapons once man learned more about the human genome, said Lockwood. Some wanted to identify consistent genetic differences and construct a disease that would target those chromosomes.

That idea never came to pass, but Lockwood thinks current anti-terrorism experts might do well to look to the past for the next terrorist attack.

"Insects were a common weapon only 50 years ago," said Lockwood. "al-Qaeda might not have a molecular biologist on their team, but they probably have someone who understands biology."


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