Why One Insect Toxicologist Aims to Explore the Unexplored
By Scott O’Neal, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Daniel Swale, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at Louisiana State University. Swale, originally from Virginia, graduated with his Ph.D. in insect neurotoxicology from the University of Florida in 2012 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2015. After his postdoc, he returned to the field of entomology when he accepted his current position at LSU. Swale currently mentors five graduate students and two undergraduate researchers in the areas of insect physiology and toxicology. He was the 2017 recipient of ESA’s Early Career Professional Research Award, and he was also the recipient of the New Investigator Award from the Agrochemical Division of the American Chemical Society.
O’Neal: How would you describe the main goal of your research program?
Swale: My research program sits at the interface of physiology and toxicology, with the ultimate goal of identifying new targets that can be exploited for insecticide development. It is interesting that over 300 different biochemical targets exist for human pharmaceuticals, but there are only 22 or so targets available for currently marketed insecticides. My research program operates under the premise that insects have many additional biochemical targets that can be exploited for insecticide design, but these targets remain unexplored or unidentified within arthropods.
Essentially, we are asking whether or not we can bridge human toxicology with insect toxicology by characterizing the physiological role and toxicological potential of targets that are unexplored in insects but are known to be critical for proper function of human physiological systems. Specifically, we are characterizing the fundamental physiology of potassium ion channels and ion transporters across various arthropod taxa that will, one, bridge the significant knowledge gap regarding insect physiological systems and, two, justify the development of insecticides or genetic technologies targeting a novel biochemical target.
What makes your research program unique or distinguishes you from your peers?
The field of insect neurophysiology and insect toxicology is relatively small, which means there is quite a bit of research overlap between researchers. All of us have the common goal of developing new insecticides to reduce the health and economic burden of arthropods, but we all approach the continuum of insecticide science from different points. For instance, some labs are focused on developing new chemistry that acts on an existing insecticide target, whereas others are focused on the management of insecticide resistance.
My lab is interested in studying the role of underexplored systems, and thus our work is currently focused more on the fundamental science side rather than the application side of the continuum. My lab uses electrophysiological, molecular, and biochemical approaches to determine the functional relevance of a particular ion channel or ion transporter within arthropods and to assess the toxicological potential of the target.
What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered, and what was your approach to solving it?
Most of our work focuses on physiological systems that are expressed in the insect nervous system, which is a very difficult tissue to study in most arthropods due to their small size and heavily sclerotized head capsule.
To get around this, we initially study the relevance of a particular target in Drosophila because genetic manipulations are well-established, and we are able to use various electrophysiological methods on the Drosophila nervous systems to study the overall influence of the target to brain activity, the specific role of the target to nerve cell function, and how the target regulates synaptic plasticity. If we see that the target is of significant relevance, then we develop the methodology to study its role in the neural systems of arthropods with medical or agricultural relevance, such as mosquitoes or aphids.
Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field?
Insects are very unique in that they represent an animal that is of extreme significance to human health through the pathogens they vector, are a major contributor to worldwide economic sustainability through agricultural impacts, and they are used as a model to study a multitude of human diseases. So, the ability to study a wide variety of biological disciplines ranging from evolutionary biology to chemical biology to answer a range of questions drew me to become an entomologist and to the field of insect neurophysiology and toxicology.
Finally, what are your hobbies outside of work?
I am an avid outdoorsman who spends any free time fishing, hunting, or training for triathlons. Louisiana is known as the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” and it definitely lives up to the name with more opportunities to fish and hunt than any other place that I have lived or visited across the world.
Scott O’Neal, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate and instructor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and 2018-2019 vice chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Daniel Swale, Ph.D.