Snow fleas spotted in Michigan snow may be key to scientific advances

This winter, Michiganders have spotted tiny pests in the snow that have adapted to survive the cold by synthetizing an antifreeze-like protein scientists hope could be a key to developing better organ donor technology and tastier cold foods.

Hypogastrura nivicola are commonly known as snow fleas because they are most often visible in the snow and jump, according to the Michigan State University extension service.

Justine VanAlstine, of Plainfield Township, near Grand Rapids, recently told WZZM-TV she saw some snow fleas congregating on her front porch. At first, she said, they just "looked like dirt," but after taking a closer look they were "just jumping everywhere" — and it grossed her out.

Still, the extension service points out that "these speck-like critters" are not true fleas.

Snow fleas are small, 2 to 3 millimeters long, and are blue-black, according to the Farmers' Almanac. And if we are being scientific about it, they really aren't bugs at all. They are arthropods, with six legs, and are more closely related to crustaceans. That's right: crabs, lobsters, shrimp.

Also, unlike regular fleas, which feed on blood, snow fleas do not bite and are harmless to humans, pets and wildlife. Instead, they feed on decaying plant material and soil bacteria. And while they are usually visible after a winter snow, they are around all year.

"Snow fleas, along with a myriad of other minute soil insects, fungi and microbes, are an important component of healthy soil," the extension service says. "Occasionally, in dry weather periods, snow fleas may migrate into homes and other out buildings."

Yet, while you may be thinking about calling an exterminator, scientists are studying snow fleas.

In a 2007 paper, "Structural Modeling of Snow Flea Antifreeze Protein," researchers noted the "glycine-rich antifreeze protein recently discovered in snow fleas exhibits strong freezing point depression activity without significantly changing the melting point of its solution."

And that could have some big benefits for humans.

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Researchers have created an edible antifreeze that contains proteins similar to those in snow fleas that has been used to "keep ice cream tasty and smooth, and prevent other frozen foods from being ruined," according to an article in a British magazine, New Scientist.

And another science news outlet,, reported researchers in Illinois and Pennsylvania have found a way to make the antifreeze protein that allows snow fleas to survive winter temperatures that might help extend the storage life of donor organs and tissues for human transplantation.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Snow fleas' antifreeze protein may impact donor organs, frozen foods