What can house sparrows—and maybe even elephants—tell us about human health?
That’s a question Dr. Lynn “Marty” Martin is on a quest to answer.
He is a leading expert on stress hormones in birds and their effects on disease transmission. Much of his research focuses on the ubiquitous house sparrow, stressed from things like light pollution, and its ability to ward off the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.
“From our studies we know that mosquitos prefer to bite birds that have elevated stress hormones,” said Martin. “These are the same sort of hormones the human body uses to cope with stress, and they have profound effects. This kind of work provides an interesting opportunity for me to use my background in ecological immunology in collaboration with the faculty in the COPH, who think more explicitly about human disease.”
Another big project Martin is engaged in—and one he is actively seeking undergraduate and graduate students to join—is a comparative immunology study. Martin and his team will look at 250 different species spanning seven orders of body size—from a mouse to an elephant. The work is being undertaken in collaboration with zoos like Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park and fellow researchers.
According to Martin, no study has ever been done with that much body size and evolutionary history and diversity. And its implications could be—well—huge.
“Basically we are seeking to determine how body size influences the immune system,” said Martin.
Martin notes that the bacteria that can infect a mouse are the same size as the bacteria that can infect an elephant. But for every step the elephant takes in relation to the mouse, there is a lot more space for bacteria to invade and cause disease.
“Does that mean the elephant will have a more sophisticated immune system than the mouse? We don’t have the data yet to know,” said Martin. “But one thing we are finding is that elephants have a lot of cells called neutrophils [an immune cell that produces pus]. Why do elephants maintain a cell that causes so much damage when they are trying to get to this big size and live this long life? Maybe there is something going on in the immune system to offset these cells—we don’t know.”
Martin says he has his grandfather to thank for his love of biology.
“He was a naturalist in the old tradition. He used to drag my sister and me and our cousins through the woods of Tennessee, trapping skunks and opossums and foxes,” recounted Martin. “He had us interacting with wildlife in a much more intimate way than if we were just walking around with binoculars. He had a sixth-grade education, yet he taught himself calculus and had me talking about the origin of species when I was 10 years old. He really inspired me.”
Martin, who’s been given a number of Outstanding Faculty awards, hopes to be that kind of inspiration to his students.
“I try to get the students engaged in all the things happening in our lab,” he said. “I want them to engage in one of the projects in our lab that really gets them excited. Once they get adept and get a feel for the writing and data analysis and all the things that go into being a scientist, I let go of the reins a bit. I want my students to become mentors themselves one day.”
USF researchers working with Dr. Martin include:
- Thomas Unnasch, COPH, Distinguished USF Health Professor
- Rays Jiang, COPH, assistant professor
- Laura Schoenle, post-doctoral fellow
- Meredith Kernbach, COPH global health doctoral student
- Haley Hanson, integrative biology doctoral student
- Samantha Oakey, lab technician
Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health