HSU professor gets grant to study the pests

A Humboldt State University biology professor has received a federal grant for research that may lead to better tick control without the use of pesticides.

Professor Jianmin Zhong received a three-year $353,500 grant from the National Institutes of Health for his research. He said he is focusing on deer ticks, a carrier of Lyme disease and one of the most commonly encountered ticks in California.

At least 10 HSU undergraduate and graduate students will take part in the research, according to a university press release. A large part of the grant will finance student salaries and benefits. The purchase of equipment, supplies and materials and travel reimbursement will also be paid for through the grant, according to the release.

Zhong said his research focuses on bacteria inside the deer tick that was once thought to carry pathogens, but is actually symbiotic and is passed from the female tick to her offspring.

"Our hypothesis is that the ticks provide a safe place for the bacteria and also provide lots of nutrients to the bacteria," he said. "In return, the bacteria also provides something the ticks cannot make by themselves."

The only thing ticks subsist on is blood, but they don't draw all their nutrients from it, Zhong said. He speculates that the symbiotic bacteria provides the tick with vitamin B, which is an essential vitamin for the normal development of all living organisms.

If his hypothesis proves correct, Zhong said he will also try to find out what will happen if the tick is deprived of vitamin B.

"If I prove that the relationship is true I will probably try to make a mutant bacteria that cannot produce vitamin B and then see the consequences that result," he said. "Will the ticks survive? Will the fitness of the ticks decrease? And this will provide a knowledge base for future tick control measures."

In the past, ticks have always been controlled by pesticides, Zhong said, but the ticks aren't so easily gotten rid of. And the use of large-scale pesticides also threatens the environment, he said.

"My way is basically using biology control measures," he said.

Zhong and HSU students will present research data at forums such as the annual meetings of the Entomological Society of America, the American Society of Microbiology and the American Society for Rickettsiology, according to the university.

Zhong began teaching at HSU in 2006. Before that, he taught at California State University Fullerton and at the Department of Parasitology at Shanghai Medical University in China.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com