Fordham University’s Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station has been awarded a $388,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study fungi that can kill the blacklegged tick, popularly known as the “deer tick,” one of the major transmitters of Lyme disease.
The two-year grant will allow Calder Center researchers to identify fungi that share habitats with the tick and investigate how weather conditions, such as humidity and temperature, affect those fungal populations. The researchers hope to determine which fungi are most virulent to ticks and the optimum conditions under which they act as a natural deterrent to the spread of the tick population.
“These fungi are one of the reasons why a tick’s life isn’t easy,” said Tom Daniels, Ph.D., associate research scientist at the Calder Center’s Vector Ecology Laboratory and principal investigator on the project. “By understanding the ecology of these organisms, we anticipate development of natural ways to impose further controls on tick populations and the spread of disease.”
Amy Tuininga, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, and Rich Falco, Ph.D., associate research scientist of biology and regional medical entomologist for the New York State Department of Health, will serve as co-principal investigators. In addition, undergraduate and graduate research assistants will take part in gathering soil samples and ticks for the presence of fungi.
Lyme disease is transmitted by the bite of an infected deer tick, and New York accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s cases of the bacterial disease, according to the Federal Centers for Disease Control. In addition, the ticks spread human granulocytic anaplasmosis and babesiosis, two rare diseases that can be deadly if not treated with antibiotics.
The grant represents the first major funding on the fungal study project, which scientists at the Calder Center have been working on since 2001. It is part of the NIH’s R21 program, which funds early-stage studies in areas classified as speculative but which “may lead to a breakthrough.”
“Our hypothesis is that there is not a single species of fungus, but rather several species of fungi that work together to regulate the tick populations,” said Tuininga. “Through our work, we hope to discover a new biocontrol strategy consisting of, say, three or more fungi that can be used together more effectively than just one.”
Once the effect of various fungi on ticks is documented, Tuininga said that the team hopes to be able to identify certain weather conditions under which the spraying of agents to control the ticks might be most optimal, and to discover whether ticks are more susceptible to the fungi when they are in the larval, nymph or adult stages.
The Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station is a 113-acre field station in Armonk, N.Y., which is used to train biologists for work in environmental science and conservation.