NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2008

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Vol. 08, No. 2


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Shaking things Up


Randy Gaugler is great for quips. "What you have to understand is that good is the enemy of great," he'll say. Or "You know what the difference is between a good habit and a bad habit? A bad habit is a good habit you took too far." He says these things with the air of someone who has done more than his share of standing in front of an audience. "Know what the difference is between a job and a career?" he'll ask. "About twenty hours a week," this when he is talking about all the evenings and weekends he's put into his work over the years. But the thing he says most often these days is this: "I've gone from being Mr. Who's Who to Mr. Who's He?"

Not that he's complaining- exactly. After all, it was his choice to make a move from being one of the leading scientists in his field to being the new guy in a different niche - someone hardly anyone has heard of, whose name doesn't have the same cachet. At least yet.

The last couple years have been especially good for Gaugler. He's a distinguished professor at Rutgers, an eminent entomologist, nematologist, entomopathologist, invertebrate pathologist. What all those appellations boil down to is a career spent, until now, working mostly on microscopic, parasitic nematodes - think of them as tiny, tiny, tiny worms. He's studied everything from their biology, their mating behaviors, their genetic variability. You name it, and he's done a lot of thinking about it. He'll tell you it's gone fairly well, considering when he started out about 25 years ago the idea of using nematodes to control insects, which is what he's done in a nutshell, was just a vague idea being held by five or six people in the world. Now, especially with the ban on certain insecticides that had been widely used in farming, obscure parasites are being studied in hundreds of different laboratories in about eighty countries and are being commercially produced and sold in at least a dozen countries.

In fact, he was riding the wave. In 2004, he won the Entomology Society of America's Recognition Award, which came with eight days in Switzerland, all expenses paid. The next year, a nematode was named for him - Mononchoides gaugleri. That November, he and his wife Cheryl left for a six-month Fulbright at Cairo University, where they stayed in an apartment on an island in the middle of the Nile. And the following summer was maybe the best of all. He and Cheryl spent three weeks in China as guests of the Chinese Academy of Science and he is a recipient of their 2006 Albert Einstein Award. (He was in good company there. Fellow awardees included six Nobel laureates.) Randy Gaugler was 56 then, and at the top of his game. He could go on cruise control if he wanted.

Or he could start out again. Because the truth was, he had become bored. He would go to the same conferences that had been so exciting in the early days of his career and to him it seemed like it was the same papers being given over and over. As for himself, he says, he ran out of ideas. He stopped working the weekends. And here's the worst thing. He had been at the pinnacle for a long time. He had, he thought to himself, nowhere to go but down.

So you could say the pump was already a little bit primed when the long-time director of Rutger's Mosquito Research and Control program retired. The School of Environmental and Biological Sciences approached Gaugler with an offer. Would he consider taking over as the new director? Maybe to everyone's surprise but his own, Gaugler said he'd think about it.

Gaugler had figured out early on that he had to be self-directed, find his own ideas, procure his own funding. He had been brought onboard at Rutgers in 1982 to go out into the salt marshes of New Jersey and do research on biting flies. That's what his predecessor had worked on for a couple of decades. New Jersey has a lot of biting flies. The flies are harassing and the bites can be painful. But they don't carry any diseases. They don't feed on crops. They don't cause allergies. They don't cause any economic losses. Gaugler could see that his career wasn't going to go too far if his focus stayed on biting flies. So after three years, he wrote a grant on biological control, which is what he had done his doctorate on - using these microscopic worms, nematodes, as biological warfare against destructive insects. He got the funding - from a highly competitive agency to boot. He was off to the races.

Nematodes are pretty complex. They have a grisly circle-of-life thing going on, a co-dependency with a bacteria, or as biologists say, a symbiotic relationship. Together, the nematode and the bacteria can cause disease in a pest insect. So they can have a beneficial effect if you're trying to get rid of a certain insect. The nematode carries the bacteria in its gut. The bacteria needs to find a specific insect to feed on so that it can multiply, but it can't do that on its own. It has no mobility. The nematode, however, zeroes in on the insect and acts as a biological syringe, injecting the bacteria into the insect's body cavity. The bacteria multiply and kill the insect within a matter of hours, working all the proteins and carbohydrates from the insect's tissue and reproducing itself until there are billions of bacteria there. At this point, the nematode steps back into the picture. It feeds on that bacteria buffet and produces two or three new generations of nematodes- all ready to go out and do the same thing all over again.

Over the years Gaugler has done fundamental research on nematodes. He's studied the behavior of the nematodes- how they responded to insects, for example, what their sex ratio has to do with foraging strategies, and how they age. He's looked at how their lipids change. He's sampled them in soils on every one of the Hawaiian Islands, looking for new strains with different properties.

But even though nematodes were biologically fascinating, not much was going on in terms of using nematodes as biological control until the early 1980s. That was when several things happened. The first was that new methods were developed to mass produce the artificial media it would take to raise nematodes in industrial quantities. The second was that the Environmental Protection Agency deemed nematodes very safe and exempted them from registration requirements. (Gaugler estimates the cost of registering a chemical insecticide would have been around $50 million and says that the market wasn't big enough to justify that kind of investment.) The third factor was that the EPA began to restrict and even ban the use of many broad spectrum chemical insecticides. Bada bing. Some scientists thought the nematode might be a good replacement.

And Gaugler was ready to leap in. In the 1970s, molecular biology tools had been developed to learn more specifically about the free-living nematode C. elegans, which Gaugler describes as the guinea pig of the molecular biology world. Gaugler now took those tools and adapted them to do genetic engineering on a broader spectrum nematode. With chemical insecticides you have the advantage of a stable shelf life, even under the kind of high temperatures typical in a storage shed. But a nematode is a living, breathing organism. If it gets too hot, it dies. Gaugler was able to engineer a new and improved nematode, one that was heat tolerant. Today, nematodes are used against garden insects, grubs, mushroom flies, and insects that burrow into trees. One of the biggest applications is in Florida, where nematodes are used to control the citrus root weevil that is a serious threat to citrus trees. Gaugler's own lab developed eight different beneficial nematodes that have ended up as commercial products.

Gaugler was a wrestler in high school and college. He drives a black Corvette the way he talks- very fast. And he's quick to laugh. But behind the smile, his eyes have an intelligence and intensity to them that makes you not want to mess with him.

He comes from a modest background. Third child of seven. He's naturally competitive, Cheryl Gaugler says, with himself and with others. Maybe it's survival of the fittest. His dad used to say that if you tripped on the way to the dinner table, you wouldn't get anything to eat, Gaugler laughs. He'd suggest that you keep both feet on the ground because if you reached across him, he might put a fork in your hand. Whatever set it in motion, Gaugler always, always, wanted to be the best. Looking back, considering that he had hardly been out of North Dakota until he went to graduate school, he says he hadn't expected life to go where it has. He's not sure that he thought much about what he expected. He just figured if you worked hard, good things would happen.

Gaugler's curriculum vita is 28 pages long, packed with long lists of grants, even longer lists of publications, three patents, and seven licenses for commercial products. But the first item under awards and honors is this: "Outstanding College Athletes of America, 1970," and a little farther down, amid all the research excellence awards and all the professional societies he's been elected to, you'll find this: "Athletic Hall of Fame, North Dakota State University at Bottineau, 1990." He won the Mon-Dak Conference title twice as a wrestler. No one had ever done that before - or since. It's not because he's a great athlete, he'll tell you. He was slower than average, and no stronger than a lot of people. But he worked harder than anybody else. If the coach told him to run 10 laps, he ran 10 laps, and then an 11th, and then sprinted as hard as he could. He has fire in the belly, Cheryl says, that wrestler's mentality. Anything he approaches he wants to conquer, full out, 110 percent.

He started college at North Dakota State at Bottineau as a wildlife ecology major, but he didn't really know what he wanted to do until the day in genetics class his sophomore year that he looked at a fruit fly under a microscope and was blown away by what he saw -cool little eye facets with unimagined structure and detail. It was his epiphany. He would study insects.

At NDSU, he was mentored by first-class people - Bob Carlson was his adviser and Ted Schultz was department chair at the time. They showed him the way without telling him what to do. In his senior year he had letters from 15 universities, inviting him to apply for graduate school. He chose North Carolina State University for a special training program funded by the National Science Foundation that brought in experts from all over the world to teach. He could have stayed in North Carolina to do his doctoral work, but chose the University of Wisconsin instead. Each place exposed him to a diversity of ideas and many mentors - you look up to and hold onto the ones who whip you, he says. And it built up his professional network. One of the things that has really helped him in his career, he says, is his willingness to move on, meet new people, and be exposed to new ideas and approaches. When opportunities come by, he tries to grab them instead of letting them pass by.

The thought of a new challenge got Gaugler's juices flowing. New Jersey is the birthplace of mosquito control for the United States. Aedes sollicitans, the salt marsh mosquito, a terrible biter, is a dominant mosquito. Salt marshes are the wetlands between ocean beaches and freshwater rivers, so it's easy to associate them with coastal areas. But the salt marsh mosquito can fly inland for fifty miles. Because of this, back at the turn of the last century, a Rutgers professor, John B. Smith, pressed for mosquito control to be considered a state issue rather than a local issue. Smith had trained as a lawyer. He proposed legislation to regulate mosquito control in New Jersey that became a model throughout the nation.

The Mosquito Research and Control program has had a glorious history, Gaugler says. But it's been status quo for a long time. The program has been doing the same thing, same thing, same thing, while the world around it has been changing.

He'd shake the place up, move it out of the complacent spot it had been in. It was the right time to move the focus from nuisance insects to public health. Mosquitoes were important in a different way now, Gaugler believed. They are vectors, the insect that carried some nasty diseases - West Nile disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis - from birds to humans. There was so much more a program like this could do.

New Jersey is a sentinel state. It's got this long coastline, climatological diversity - really six separate sub-climates - and major ports of entry. Port Elizabeth is the largest container port in the eastern United States. Then there are the airports - Newark, Philly, JFK - lots of opportunities not only for new mosquitoes to come in but new diseases. In 1959, New Jersey had its first wave of Eastern Equine Encephalitis. It killed dozens of people. They almost closed the turnpike down people were so afraid. In 1964 and 1975, it was St. Louis Encephalitis that swept through and infected a lot of people. In the 1980s it was Lyme disease. That's not a mosquito - borne disease. But that's why he was going to rename the program the Center for Vector Biology. Ticks transmit disease as well.

New threats are here and on their way. Aedes albopictus, for instance - the Asian tiger mosquito. It wasn't in the United States ten years ago, but it's well established now. It's black with white stripes down the middle - very small and nasty. They breed wherever they can find standing water. A bottle cap laying around with a quarter inch of water is like a Motel 6 to them. A sand bucket in the backyard that filled up with rainwater or a low spot catching moisture on a tarp can easily become breeding grounds for 10,000 mosquitoes.

Aside from the nuisance factor, the Asian tiger mosquito can carry more than thirty arthropod-borne viruses, generally referred to as arboviruses. It's a bridge for West Nile, which means that it feeds on both birds and mammals. When mosquitoes bite an infected bird, they get a big shot of virus, and then they transmit it to humans when they bite us.

The Asian tiger mosquito is the principal carrier of two viruses of concern that are spreading in the world - dengue fever and chikungunya. Dengue is a particularly nasty disease. You aren't afraid you're going to die, Gaugler says, you're afraid you won't. There was an outbreak of dengue fever in Hawaii, about a hundred cases in 2000-2001. Luckily, he says, the public health department got in there and hammered it down before it took off.

Chikungunya makes West Nile look like a picnic. It attacks the joints, which degenerate and don't come back. In September, it was found in Italy. Gaugler expects it to spread through Europe the way West Nile has spread through the United States. Travelers have developed the symptoms after arriving here, but that's either happened in winter when mosquitoes weren't active or the travelers hadn't come in contact with the mosquitoes. Either way, it's only a matter of time. The insect that transmits the virus is here.

The Latin names of mosquitoes slip off Randy Gaugler's tongue these days as easily as those of his children. Aedes albopictus, Egyptii, Culex, sollicitans, Toxorhynchites. (Aedes vexans, by the way, the flood water mosquito, is the big biter around Fargo.) Change is invigorating, he says. He has ideas again. Everything he sees, reads, hears is new. He's working weekends once more.

Heading up the new Center for Vector Biology meant moving from his nicer digs to a concrete block office and lab building, and he has a second lab building, a tin shed, some garages he's going to have torn down. Gauglerville, he says some people call the cluster.

The center has more than a year under its belt. He had figured it would take two years to change the culture, and that still sounds on target to him. His plans are big- move the scope of the center from regional to international, form an alliance with the public health program to offer a joint master's degree, go after federal grant money. It's a privilege to live in a country that has very good vector control, he says. It's not because of vaccines that we don't have malaria in the United States. We don't have malaria because we control the mosquito that carries it. And for him, that's the name of the game.

Patience is not his strong suit. But he was hired to shake things up, and he has. Initiatives at the center are beginning to snowball. In the first year as director, he's garnered $1.5 million in grants. He's too old to contribute significant research in vector biology, he says, but young enough to still leave a legacy. The other day he e-mailed to say they'd landed a $3.8 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to develop integrated pest management techniques to suppress the Asian tiger mosquito. All told, the grants amount to more funding than the program had accumulated in its first hundred years. The center is on its way, he wrote. Life is sweet.

-- Sally Ann Flecker

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