Professor leads team in Lyme disease study

By Derrek Asberry

Georgia Southern U. professor Lorenza Beati, of the department of arthropodology and parasitology, is currently leading a team of researchers to learn more about Lyme disease and the species of ticks that spread it.

For many years, the number of reported Lyme disease cases in the northern U.S. has been increasing at a steady pace, said Beati. However, the South’s number of confirmed cases is much lower in comparison, despite the year-round abundance of ticks due to the warm climate.

She also said that there have been several debates over whether or not these lower rates are caused by the large number of unreported cases of Lyme disease in the south, which would result in inaccurate numbers.

“We are trying to test alternative hypotheses to explain why this geographic difference is so marked,” Beati said.

The group is comprised of Beati and several GSU biology and public health students. In addition, GSU has partnered with teams from four other universities across the country and in Canada—Michigan State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Rhode Island, Hofstra University and the University of Montreal. This extensive partnership will allow the different universities to study the ticks in their respective region to find any differences among the species.

Beati specializes in GSU’s Institute of Arthropodology and Parasitology. The IAP at GSU is home to the world’s largest National Tick Collection. It houses over $1 million specimens, which are sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

“You don’t really appreciate the Tick Collection until you see it,” said junior Jessica Dennis. “I really was impressed with how large our collection is and how much effort they are putting into the issue.”

Beati’s research has already offered some possible solutions to the unbalanced number of cases of Lyme disease.

“One hypothesis circulating is that the south doesn’t have much Lyme disease because ticks here often feed on lizards, which supposedly aren’t good reservoirs for the disease,” Beati said.

The groups’ production has garnered a four-year, $2.5 million dollar study allowance, funded by the National Science Foundation. Each university is heading a different aspect of the project. Beati is researching the genetic composition of the blacklegged tick.

“I’m in charge of studying the genetics of the ticks to see if they are a genetically different population…that make them more or less able to transmit diseases.”

These studies began at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C. As the research becomes more in depth, GSU’s group is working on establishing two more field research sites closer to campus. Their process begins with gathering ticks from lizards, rodents, mammals and vegetation.

All of the universities will compile a centralized database of their findings. They will be consistently updated and published throughout the duration of the project, which, according to Beati, will be funded through December of 2013.

“I think we got this grant because there is such a diversity of researchers collaborating on the same project,” Beati said “It is a large group effort where we put together a lot of strengths and expertise.”

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