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EPA funds ground-breaking Lyme disease research

New York, NY In the United States, Lyme disease is the most frequently reported disease that can be passed from animals to humans. These animal-borne diseases can make people very sick, and proper anticipation of disease outbreaks and effective intervention are crucial to protecting the public. Scientists at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY recently received $750,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help safeguard human health by gaining a better understanding of the Lyme disease life cycle.

"Most people overlook the possibility of acquiring Lyme disease or other tick- and insect-transmitted diseases," said EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg. "Certain areas here in New York, however, have among the highest incident rates of Lyme disease in the United States."

The Lyme disease research team is headed by a group of five investigators. Its focus is on how the interactions between ticks, bacterial pathogens, animal and human hosts, and the landscapes in which they interact, affect exposure to Lyme disease. The objective is to understand how diversity of different host species, as affected by man-made changes to the landscape and other social stressors, drive human risk of infection with Lyme disease. This will be done with experimental field work to study and manipulate three major animal hosts for ticks: white-footed mice, eastern chipmunks, and gray squirrels. Ticks that feed on mice and chipmunks frequently get infected with Lyme bacteria, whereas those that feed on squirrels and other animals do not.

"Some spots within the Northeast are much riskier than others," said Cary Institute researcher Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, "and we've developed specific hypotheses to explain why. The new funding from EPA will allow us to test these hypotheses in the field, and the resulting knowledge should help inform habitat management to reduce human risk."

These studies will be conducted in Dutchess County, New York, an area of the country where Lyme disease is a problem. The scientists expect that communities where hosts other than mice are abundant high biodiversity communities will be characterized by a lower rate of ticks infected with B. burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. In this way, high biodiversity might protect human health. EPA funding for this study will last through December 31, 2010.

This is one of three biodiversity grants issued in 2008 under EPA's Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. These three grants will bring together ecologists, biologists, public health experts, earth scientists, and social scientists. Together, they will integrate data on ecosystems, human health and man-made stressors such as deforestation to investigate how environmental factors and people's behaviors contribute to disease transmission.


Contact: Caroline Newton
Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

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