- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Sparks, a former Louisiana State University professor and now Insect Management Group advisor for Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, won the coveted honor via a vote from readers and editors of R&D. Past recipients have included the inventor of the Internet and the first to successfully sequence the entire human genome.
“Tom Sparks is one of the leading entomologists in agroscience and a pioneer in the wave of new green chemistries that are changing the way we control the insects that are a crucial factor in global agriculture,” said R&D senior editor Paul Livingstone.
Sparks' research on “green” insecticides led to spinetoram, a highly effective new insecticide chemistry that eliminates toxic side effects in humans and mammals.
“As scientists, we all expand human knowledge, but few of us really have a direct impact on the planet,” said Hammock, an entomologist who served as Sparks' major professor at UC Riverside before joining the UC Davis faculty in 1980. “Tom is one of the lucky few who not only contributed to basic science, but can point to his work on spinosads and say 'I made the world a better place.' "
“The spinosad chemistries have been integrated into a number of pest control programs around the nation which preserve and utilize natural enemies and dramatically reduce human and environmental risk from pesticides,” said Hammock, a distinguished professor who won the 2008 UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award for Graduate and Professional Teaching for dedication to his students, his interdisciplinary thrust, and his scientific and professional career guidance.
Livingstone said the Scientist-of-the-Year award “is reserved for those who exemplify the ideals of R&D in academia, industry, or nationally sponsored research.” Recipients stand out by such factors as quantity of patents and papers, ability to capitalize on new ideas to produce useful results, and the impact their work has had on both the scientific community and the world in general.
Sparks will receive the award at the R&D 100 Awards Banquet, set for Nov. 12 in Orlando, Fla. R&D awards “Oscars of Invention” to 100 innovative persons a year.
We're really proud of Tom,” said Hammock. “When he was at UC Riverside, he was named the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Outstanding Graduate Student Award and won a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship.”
Now a resident of Greenfield, Ind., Sparks, 58, grew up in California's Central Valley. He received his bachelor's degree in biology from California State University, Fresno, and his doctorate in entomology, toxicology and physiology from UC Riverside under Hammock. Said Livingstone: “While working in the well-known laboratory of Dr. Bruce Hammock, Tom completed key research on hormones that would guide him into the unexplored regions of entomological science.”
Hammock recalled that Sparks enrolled at UC Riverside to study biological control. “This interest soon took a more physiological and biochemical turn,” Hammock said. “Tom had broad interests even then, ranging from synthesis of juvenile hormone analogs as green pesticides to resistance management, to his thesis work on the fundamental biochemistry of how butterflies and moths undergo metamorphosis.”
"Interacting with Tom Sparks was a delight,” Hammock said. “Tom trained me as much or more than I trained him."
After leaving UC, Sparks joined the faculty at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1978, advancing to professor in 1986. At LSU, he continued his pioneering research on juvenile hormone (JH) and JH esterase, an enzyme critical to the regulation insect development and a target for agrochemicals. “Others studied this hormone before him,” Livingstone said, “but his work was among the most important, helping spawn nearly 500 scientific papers on this topic.”
Sparks' ties to UC Davis include a sabbatical in the summer of 1985. As a visiting professor and researcher, he worked on a collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation that linked his laboratory at LSU, Lynn Riddiford at University of Washington and UC Davis. His project involved the molecular basis of metamorphosis in the tomato hornworm.
Interested in new avenues for insecticide development and eager to invent, Sparks joined Dow in July 1989 and began collaborating with chemists and biologists. “As a top student in the history of insecticide resistance in cotton production, Sparks brought his considerable knowledge of insect biology to bear in the use of quantitative structure activity relationships to develop new chemistries,” Livingstone said. “His ability to refine new products based on this technology has earned him recognition as one of the fathers of this new approach to insect control.”
Sparks formed the Macrolide Research Group that coordinated spinosad-related R&D at Eli Lilly and Dow for several years and which has produced numerous successful products.
Sparks knew the potential of advanced computing tools from his “silicon revolution” years at UC Riverside. He put one such program, Braincel, to work on an advanced spinosyn problem, asking “small questions about minute changes in molecular structure,” Livingstone noted. “By identifying advantageous patterns in the answers, he was able to build a new chemistry, spinetoram, which represents one of the most advanced insecticides to reach the market.”
Spinetoram is derived through the fermentation of a natural soil organism followed by chemical modification. According to Dow, it impacts the environment the same way as a biological product, yet operates with the efficacy of a synthetic technology, Livingstone said.
Spinetoram, registered with the EPA's Reduced Risk Pesticide Initiative, can be used in a variety of crops, at low rates, and with minimal impact on mammals or beneficial insects, the R&D senior editor said. “Some estimates claim that spinetoram will eliminate 1.8 million pounds of organophosphate pesticides used in tree nut and fruit crops in just the first five years of use. Without the efforts of Sparks and his team, this chemistry would have been far more elusive.”
Sparks, a 30-year member of the ESA and the American Chemical Society and a highly sought lecturer, has published more than 130 articles on cheminformatics, insect endocrinology, insect biogenic amines, and high throughput screening. He pioneered many of the tools and methods that chemists use today.
Keith Wing, a former Hammock graduate student who is now a senior research associate for DuPont Central Research and Development, Wilmington, Del., praised Sparks' selection as Scientist of the Year. “Tom has been a great friend and a very accomplished scientist and social contributor, especially with his work on the spinosad chemistry,” he said. “I have always admired his diligence, candor, keen insights and creativity.”
While in the Hammock lab, Wing worked on JH esterase and JH binding proteins (JHBP) and explored “some additional areas to complement the work that Tom had done in those areas.”
Wing, who received his doctorate in 1981 from UC Davis, joined DuPont in 1990 and worked on safe insecticide discoveries before switching to biofuels research. “The years I worked on agrochemical discovery kind of paralleled Tom's career as he went to LSU and then Dow. “
Wing recalled that he first met Sparks at UC Riverside. “Tom and his wife Sandy helped me adjust to graduate student life right away. Soon after I arrived, I remember going to their modest apartment for dinner. Tom liked motorcycles and I always thought to myself, why does this geeky skinny dude from Fresno like bikes so much? Sandy was a statistician and they both struck me as being rather computationally oriented.”
“Tom and I were always doing JH esterase and JHBP assays until all hours of the night and we probably filled half the university's quota for tritium waste. We would go to the university auditorium to see movies and eat burgers after that. We both developed a strong interest in chemistry and biochemistry applied to insect science under Bruce's guidance. Both Tom and I often reflected over the years afterwards what a unique advantage this multidisciplinary education in insect toxicology and biochemistry provided to us.... it let us approach problems much more broadly than some who had more specialized scientific backgrounds and this paid rich dividends in our careers, for our respective institutions and for society.”
(Editor's Note: Paul Livingstone of R&D Magazine, contributed to this news article.)