Meet the Maggot: How This Flesh-Loving, Butt-Breathing Marvel Helps Us Solve Murders

Forensic entomologists have provided valuable evidence in many death investigations, and this is possible purely because blowflies are attracted to decomposing organic matter rich in bacteria.

Curiously, the bacteria don’t kill the insects and the larvae feed almost invincibly. This ability is being exploited in human health care.

The most intriguing interaction of maggots and humans is in an area known as maggot therapy. Clean, medical-grade maggots are intentionally and carefully introduced to a chronic wound, where they remove dead tissue and overcome the need for invasive surgical treatment.

Research has shown maggots don’t just remove the dead tissue by debriding the wound, they simultaneously kill off the harmful bacteria responsible for the infection. This occurs in the very acidic stomach of the maggot, as well as in the wound itself, where highly specialized antibacterial substances are excreted and secreted by the feeding larvae.

So maggots are not just eating machines to eliminate dead tissue, they are medicinal, utilizing their own, bespoke pharmaceuticals to clean up wounds that often fail to respond to other treatment – and all for a bargain. A wound may be healed for approximately A$200-500 with no need for a hospital stay or surgical intervention.

Why Do They Need More Research?
Chronic wounds are an increasing burden in the health system, with 400,000 Australians estimated to have a chronic wound or ulcer at any point in time.

This bears an estimated annual cost of A$2-4 billion annually, with this figure likely to increase due to the ageing population and prevalence of chronic disease including diabetes. Additionally, antibiotic resistant “superbugs” are posing a challenge to effective wound treatment, which means surgery is needed where less invasive methods fail.

The importance of maggot therapy has been recognized by some Aboriginal people, Central American Mayan tribes and wartime surgeons in the 1500s and 1800s, but was abandoned in favor of antibiotics.

In the United Kingdom, maggot therapy is approved for doctors to prescribe and could save the National Health Service an estimated A$2.5 billion per year. In the United States, maggot therapy has resurged and the US Food and Drug Agency provided clearance to market medicinal maggots in 2004.

In Australia, maggot therapy isn’t yet TGA approved, and we need to invest research dollars into understanding its mechanisms and conducting our own clinical trials before this will be achieved.

The maggots, while highly effective, are often misunderstood and clinical data is somewhat skewed by the fact maggots are always the last resort for a chronic, non-healing wound – right before amputation.

This life-saving service provided by the humble maggot all comes back to their love of bacteria and a good necrotic soup. So the next time you hose maggots out of your rubbish bin, pause to reconsider that “yuck” reaction, because nature’s little superheroes are ready to help, if only we let them.

Michelle Harvey is Associate Professor, Deakin University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.