Researchers Dissect Ticks, Searching Their DNA For Clues To Disease

Jun 29, 2015

As many outdoorsy Vermonters are discovering, ticks are in plentiful supply this summer. Bad news for humans at risk for Lyme disease. But the bumper crop is providing ample specimens to study and, amazingly, to dissect with some really tiny scalpels.

That’s what’s going on in a number of air-purified laboratories these warm days, including one at Lyndon State College.

Charlie Delany is a big guy, but he has nimble fingers and steady hands. He needs them. Wearing purple rubber gloves and a white lab coat at Lyndon State, he’s slicing through a live tick.

“I’m going to start by making a lateral cut across the head,” Delany says, peering through a powerful microscope. “Kill the tick first, makes it easier getting in there.”

What he wants to extract is the nearly invisible gut. Delany, an intern working at Lyndon State this summer, is practicing on dog ticks before he moves on to the more valuable target of this research study: deer ticks. As Delany’s biology professor, Alan Giese explains, the aim is to see a whole range of diseases ticks might be bringing into Vermont on their northward migration.

“We want to find out if the micro-organisms you find residing in ticks change over the course of how long a population has been established,” Giese says. He’s watching his protégé closely as the dissection continues.

Partnering with researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Giese is currently studying ticks he and Delany have collected this summer (while wearing special tick-resistant clothing) from Brattleboro and Barnet. They want to see if they are different from ticks that have been established much longer on Cape Cod.

Charlie Delany and his biology professor, Alan Giese, prepare a vial to receive the intestine surgically removed from a tick. Their study is in partnership with the University of Vermont and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

"I am an ecologist,"Giese explains. "I don’t have any medical training per se. And I am very interested in using these projects to understand how tick populations expand ... and the information we get about the micro-biomes can help us answer questions about how ticks are reaching new areas."

By “microbiome,” Giese means the colony of micro-organisms that live in that tiny tick gut. Proteins and fats are washed away from the tissue until all that’s left is DNA. Through a sequencing process, the tick DNA will be matched to other DNA already in the Vermont Genetics Network, which is partially sponsoring this research.

“So we don’t have to know in advance what we’re looking for," Giese says. “We just sequence all the DNA and the computer tells us what we’ve found. The beauty is you sometimes find things that you would never have known to look for, and that starts you thinking about what the implications might be for people.”

"We don’t have to know in advance what we’re looking for. We just sequence all the DNA and the computer tells us what we’ve found. The beauty is you sometimes find things that you would never have known to look for." - Alan Giese, Lyndon State College biology professor

Scientists already know that ticks carry serious diseases other than Lyme. But to aid the medical profession, they need to know more about those bacteria and how they may evolve during migration. They also need to know what else could be lurking in a tick gut they may so far have escaped detection.

So Giese and Delany will spend some picture-perfect summer days at this windowless workstation  handling, with precision and precaution, the very germs the rest of us are trying to avoid.