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MSU Entomologists Awarded $2.5 Million for Infectious Disease Study

A team of scientists, including two from Michigan State University, has been awarded a four-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project is aimed at investigating a pathogen, Mycobacterium ulcerans, that causes an infectious disease called Buruli ulcer, a chronic condition that affects skin, soft tissues and bone. The pathogen is closely related to those causing leprosy and tuberculosis.

Researchers have yet to agree on how humans contract Buruli ulcer, but there is a hypothesis on how on the pathogen is able to thrive in certain environments, particularly in tropical regions.

The novel weapon hypothesis suggests that some invasive species are dominant in new ecosystems because they contain compounds that allow them to persist in the environment at the expense of native species.

While this has been tested in plants, scientists believe the same principle could hold true for microbial communities — especially those in the environment that cause disease.

protrait of MSU professor M. Eric Benbow

M. Eric Benbow

M. Eric Benbow, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Entomology with a joint appointment in the Department of Osteopathic Medical Specialties in the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, is the project’s principal investigator.

“We know very little about how this pathogen moves around in the environment,” Benbow said. “Additionally, we need to understand more about how Mycobacterium ulcerans interacts with other microbes and pathogens. This work can help us uncover basic information about how diseases become emergent and spread.”

The project will be focused on French Guiana, a district of France located on the north Atlantic coast of South America. Buruli ulcer is endemic in the area, providing researchers with a unique opportunity to study the issue.

protrait of MSU professor Jennifer Pechal

Jennifer Pechal

Jennifer Pechal, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Entomology, is one of four co-principal investigators on the project. Her expertise lies in using genomic and computational tools to explore the effects microbes and insects have on human and animal health.

“The team is interested in examining the interaction between disease-causing organisms and the environment, including fish, invertebrates and biofilms that grow on aquatic plants,” Pechal said. “We can learn a lot from taking samples from the watershed in an area where the disease is present, especially spots where there is a lot of human activity.”

Benbow said the team will likely travel to French Guiana in the first year to survey the area and work on logistics of navigating waterways in parts of the Amazon. In year two, the group will begin to take samples.

Graduate and undergraduate students will have the chance to participate in research, and a special emphasis will be put on the inclusion of military veterans.

“MSU has a wonderful program called Vets to Ag in which veterans have the opportunity to build skills for a career in agriculture,” Benbow said. “I’d love to expand that idea to the sciences in general, working with veterans to help them learn about how they can be a part of solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

The other co-principal investigators are Heather Jordan, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University; Michael Sandel, an assistant professor at the University of West Alabama; and Jean-François Guégan, a research professor at the French Institute for Research on Sustainable Development.

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