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BYU researcher satisfying major itch to study fleas

He gets $500,000 grant to research 2,300 flea species

PROVO — Michael Whiting has fleas. And the bug-loving professor doesn't hesitate talking about it.

In fact, the Brigham Young University professor can spend hours talking about his research, which he not-so-jokingly calls the "Flea Genome Project."

"I've always been interested in insects. As a kid, I was always running around collecting bugs," Whiting said.

But the entomologist's interest in ectoparasites was sparked during his college days. As Whiting continued to study bugs, he realized how difficult it was to determine how groups of insects are related to each other.

That's one reason he launched work on a comprehensive "family tree" of the some 2,300 known species of fleas. He predicts a student research team he supervises will publish some groundbreaking findings next year.

"We are surprisingly close on the flea family tree," said Whiting, who finished his undergraduate work at BYU before completing his studies at Cornell University.

"Figuring out the flea family tree tells us something about fleas and what insects they came from."

In addition to other research focusing on creepy critters, Whiting's search to track the genealogy of the bane of dogs caused the National Science Foundation to take notice.

Whiting last year won a $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development Award, the science foundation's top honor for promising young faculty.

"They're very highly perceived awards — they cement a researcher's career," says Rob DeSalle, from the American Museum of Natural History in New York where Whiting worked before arriving returning to teach at BYU.

"Mike's a born teacher, one of the few who can explain lab techniques to students so that they can really grasp them right away," he said. "You put that together with a top-notch research mind and you've got a force to be reckoned with."

Whiting's grant, allocated in increments over five years, supports his lab work and jaunts around the world in search of obscure or never-yet-studied species of insects.

His quest took him last year to the remote jungles in New Guinea, a region known for its populations of rare, native mammals. Whiting hoped to find rare mammals playing host to rare fleas.

"We went places no entomologist has ever been," he said. "There aren't a lot of places left on Earth you can say that about."

The two-month trek was arduous — and he was utterly shocked by the first thing he found.

After flying across the Pacific, hopping several rickety airplanes and hiking up steep mountainsides to arrive at the first campsite, Whiting peered up the trail to find a native New Guinean who had stepped out to welcome the visitors.

To Whiting's amazement, the village elder, who had never seen radios or running tap water, wore a John Stockton T-shirt.

The shirt was given to the man by a charity group that supplies natives with donated, second-hand clothes.

"I tried to explain to him who John Stockton was, that he was a famous basketball player from my home state," he said, smiling. "He just didn't understand."

After establishing research stations, Whiting hired 20 or 30 locals to help collect samples from the surrounding forests.

Natives trapped rodents and marsupials, which Whiting would comb with a toothbrush over a white bucket positioned to catch the fleas that were scraped off.

Some members of the far-flung flea family are hard to locate. Whiting has asked researchers around the world to send him fleas they find on their journeys.

He recently was sent a rare flea that was found on Antarctic penguins — but still needs a flea found only on the Tibetan barking deer.

These insects that most people scorn as homogenous pests elicit a special fascination in the bug-loving professor.

"Fleas have been associated with humans for a long time," said Whiting. He argues that fleas have impacted humans more than any other insect group.

For example, he said, fleas were the vehicles for plagues that killed a third of the population of Europe during the Middle Ages and are believed to be the reason the bubonic plague lives on in Third World countries.

Whiting said the DNA extracted from fleas found at archaeology digs and in mummies around the world may help answer the question of where the plague originated.

Still, questions about fleas remain unanswered, he said.

"Fleas have lived with mammals for a very long time and have evolved into many species," he said. "Why have they shifted onto new hosts? What environmental changes prompted those shifts?"

To get answers, Whiting and his students note the physical characteristics of the fleas they find. Then, DNA samples are extracted and sequenced by the university's DNA computers. A sequencer establishes the genetic blueprint of each animal and shows researchers if a new species has been found.

"Just as the Human Genome Project gives us new insights into who we are, studying insects also gives us more insights about DNA," Whiting said. "This lets us understand even more how DNA can evolve and change over time."