Florida Museum of Natural History mammalogist David Reed has received a $900,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award to study the evolutionary biology of human lice.

David Reed and louse image
David Reed, Asst. Curator of Mammalogy, with a photo of a louse projected onto the wall behind him

Florida Museum photo by Eric Zamora

Reed, an associate curator of mammalogy at the Florida Museum, will use the five-year, $934,498 grant to trace the evolutionary history of lice, and he hopes the study will shed light on human migration, development and evolution.

“Parasitic lice have evolved alongside, but much faster than their human hosts,” Reed said. “The lice have given researchers a more detailed look at the process of species migration and evolution.”

The study also will analyze genetic similarities between the evolution of lice and humans as they have evolved over time. Reed said human and chimpanzee lice branched from a single evolutionary line at about the same time their hosts did and the study will use DNA sequencing data to more closely examine other similarities between the two types of lice.

The study will require samples from around the world, collected with the help of medical professionals. The grant also provides funding to support a postdoctoral fellow, two graduate students and up to 10 undergraduates, and includes a training program to teach UF graduate students how to communicate their research to lay audiences.

“Scientists often lack the skills needed to translate their technical research findings into information that is relevant to a broad public audience, “which is why we are creating this graduate opportunity,” Reed said. “Being able to employ both graduate and undergraduate students is a real benefit to the department and the university.”

The research opportunities will provide training in skills such as collecting specimens, working in the molecular lab and conducting genetic analysis, allowing students to enter the work force with specialized skills.

Human lice have been a nuisance for centuries. The rapid changes that make lice ideal candidates for a study centered on evolutionary processes also play havoc on everyday life among the general human population.

Head lice in school children, one common form of parasitic lice, have built a resistance to insecticidal shampoos in developed countries, which is why their numbers are increasing in the U.S. In underdeveloped countries where insecticidal treatments are not widely used, lice are still susceptible and easily controlled with existing medicines, Reed said.

The grant also includes the purchase of a high definition imaging system to document, compare and study specimens collected worldwide for the project.

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 and currently funds about 20 percent of all federally supported research at U.S. colleges and universities. NSF creates about 10,000 new awards each year including the Faculty Early Career Development Award, which is given to researchers who exemplify the teacher-researcher role.


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