In the long and seemingly futile quest to build a better roach trap, researchers have identified the come-hither chemical of the female German cockroach and produced a synthetic version that makes males come running in fewer than nine seconds.
The search for the sex pheromone has been a top priority for cockroach scientists, but it has been an arduous process because the compound is emitted in very small quantities and is so fragile that it easily degrades during laboratory analysis.
The new synthetic version appears to work at least as well as the original, giving scientists hope that they might be able to shift the balance of power in the age-old contest between humans and cockroaches, creatures widely considered capable of surviving nuclear war.
“Chemists have been trying to get this pheromone for decades,” said Wendell Roelofs, a professor of insect biochemistry at Cornell University and one of the study’s authors.
The compound that lures males to their potential mates is so powerful that cockroaches near death from starvation will forgo peanut butter for a chance to copulate, said Coby Schal, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University who co-authored the study, published Friday in the journal Science.
“Invariably, the male will choose the sex pheromone over the food, even though he may die on the way,” Schal said.
German cockroaches — half-inch long, light brown bugs with dark brown stripes — are the most prevalent roach species in the world. Widely reviled, they are responsible for spreading food poisoning, dysentery, cholera and other diseases and for triggering asthma in children.
U.S. consumers spend more than $1 billion each year to rid their homes of roaches and other pests, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They barely make a dent in the cockroach population.
With a single female roach capable of producing as many as 2 million offspring a year, pest control experts know they have lifetime employment. The best they can do to control the pests is to use food as bait to lure them into traps or to catch them on a glue board if they happened to wander onto it.
The pheromone approach promises to be far more effective, said Greg Baumann, technical director for the National Pest Management Association, a trade group based in Fairfax, Va.