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ODU's Sonenshine Contributes His Expertise to New York Times 'Debate' About Ticks

Daniel Sonenshine, Old Dominion University professor emeritus and eminent scholar of biological sciences, is one of five national experts on ticks whose commentaries were published this week in the "Room for Debate" blog of The New York Times.

The editors of the Times asked the experts to respond to the question: Is the tick problem getting worse, or does it just seem that way at this time every year?

Sonenshine's contribution, headlined "First, We Have to Count Them," explained that scientists have very few measurements to explain how tick populations expand and contract with the seasons. "In contrast to mosquito control procedures where traps are set out to measure insect numbers and identify localities needing treatment, no comparable procedures are used by city or county governments to monitor tick populations," he wrote. "We do have detailed studies that have measured tick abundance over the years, but they are highly localized."

Because actual tick counts are scarce, Sonenshine noted, he and his colleagues at ODU are looking to mathematical modeling to better understand tick population biology. A model they are creating will "integrate the tick populations over a broad region with the disease risk for the disease-causing agents that they carry and transmit to people," according to the commentary.

The other experts invited to comment were Thomas Mather, University of Rhode Island; Felicia Keesing, Bard College; Richard Ostfeld, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; and William Krinsky, Yale University. The blog is at http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/more-ticks-more-misery.

The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) last year awarded Sonenshine its prestigious Hoogstraal Medal for outstanding lifelong service internationally in medical entomology.

The award recognizes the ODU emeritus professor's unique contributions to the ASTMH mission to promote global health through the prevention and control of vector-borne infectious diseases and other diseases that disproportionately afflict the global poor.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Sonenshine's career, and the accomplishment that secured his place among the elite who have won the Hoogstraal Medal, is the two-volume text, "The Biology of Ticks," that he wrote during the late 1980s. The first volume was published in 1991 and the second in 1993 by Oxford University Press. With a total of 914 pages, the work covers all aspects of the biology, morphology, systematics, physiology, biochemistry, ecology, disease relationships and control of ticks. The monumental work helped him win Virginia's Outstanding Scientist Award in 1994.

Sonenshine has been involved in all phases of tick research. In the 1960s he focused on field work, which sent him out into the wild to trap small animals and collect the ticks that he found on them. In the 1970s he began the transition to the laboratory, often working with chemists, to study insect physiology. The 1980s saw the completion of the transition to the laboratory and into more tightly focused investigations of what makes ticks tick. This has included quite a bit of snooping on the sex lives of ticks and has helped him win six patents for means to control the parasitic creatures.

He is known throughout the world for his strategies to collect and employ tick pheromones to lure them into insecticide traps or to upset their mating habits. These strategies allow the control of ticks and tick-borne diseases with minimal use of insecticides.

More recently he has taken his investigations down to the molecular level. "I play the molecular game mostly with the help of my students," he quipped, explaining how a man in his 70s could segue so successfully into the high-tech world of research on isolation of specific molecules. "I always say, I learn more from my students than they learn from me."

In addition to the mathematical modeling, his latest pursuits include studies of the innate immunity of ticks. In other words, he wants to know how ticks escape harm from the dangerous microbial agents that they harbor in their bodies. These are the agents that can be spread to mammals by tick bites and cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and numerous other tick-borne diseases.

Sonenshine continues his research at ODU even though he formally retired from teaching in 2002. He also is the director of the university's Animal Care Facility.

This article was posted on: July 28, 2009

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