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New Study Unveils The Secret Lives Of Skin Mites

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The first comprehensive DNA analysis of hair mites shows their unusual lifestyle habits, bodily traits, and evolutionary future.

New research suggests that the tiny mites that inhabit human pores and reproduce on our faces at night are becoming such reduced organisms as a result of their peculiar lifestyles that they may soon merge into humanity.

The mites are handed down through the generations and are carried by practically every human, with adult numbers rising as pores expand. They’re about 0.3mm long and live in hair follicles on the face including the eyelashes, where they devour the sebum that cells in the pores naturally release. They are most active at night, moving between follicles in search of a mate.

Based on the results of the first-ever genome sequencing investigation of the D. folliculorum mite, it has been determined that the mites are shedding unneeded genes and cells as they approach closer to becoming internal symbionts as a result of their isolated existence and subsequent inbreeding.

“We found these mites have a different arrangement of body part genes to other similar species due to them adapting to a sheltered life inside pores,” says Dr. Alejandra Perotti, co-author of the study. These changes to their DNA have resulted in some unusual body features and behaviours.”

The DNA of Demodex folliculorum was examined in depth and revealed the following:

  • The genetic reduction has forced them to become exceedingly simple animals with tiny legs driven by only three single cell muscles due to their secluded life, with no external risks, no rivalry to infest hosts, and no contact with other mites with different genes. They manage to thrive with the tiniest protein repertoire ever found in this and comparable species.
  • This reduction in genes is also why they only come out at night. The mites don’t have UV protection and have lost the gene that causes animals to wake up in the light. They’ve also been stripped of their ability to manufacture melatonin, a hormone that keeps small invertebrates active at night, but they can still fuel their all-night mating sessions with melatonin secreted by human skin around twilight.
  • The mites’ odd mating habits are due to their unique gene arrangement. 
  • One of their genes has inverted, giving them a unique mouth-appendage structure that is especially projecting for food collection. This helps them stay alive when they are young.
  • When opposed to their mature form, the mites have a lot more cells when they’re young. This contradicts the common belief that parasitic creatures lower their cell counts early in their growth. This, according to the researchers, is the first step toward mites becoming symbionts.
  • The mites’ lack of exposure to potential mates, who could pass on new genes to their children, may have led to an evolutionary dead end and extinction. This has previously been seen in bacteria residing inside cells, but not in an animal.
  • Some experts hypothesized that because the mites lack an anus, they must amass all of their feces throughout the course of their lives before expelling it when they die, resulting in skin inflammation. The latest study, on the other hand, confirmed that they actually have anuses and have thus been wrongfully blamed for a variety of skin problems.

Bangor University and the University of Reading spearheaded the research, which was carried out in partnership with the University of Valencia, the University of Vienna, and the National University of San Juan. It is published in Molecular Biology and Evolution journal.

“Mites have been blamed for a lot of things,” adds Dr. Henk Braig, co-lead author from Bangor University and the National University of San Juan. The long association with humans might suggest that they also could have simple but important beneficial roles, for example, in keeping the pores in our face unplugged.”


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