It is tough to find a fan of ticks. Go ahead and ask someone—no one likes ticks. These super-sneaky tiny invertebrates have an amazingly complex life cycle and harbor many types of bacteria that make us sick. Ticks transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and Rickettsia when they bite us by accident (we are not their preferred host). Therefore, understanding the biology of the tick is important if we are to ever find cures for the chronic infections they transmit. Alli Toffolon, a rising senior and accomplished Equestrian, is interested in understanding how ticks transmit Lyme disease to humans and animals. Before the end of the school year, Alli and I, as Director of the Advanced Math/Science Research Program, sent out a plea to the Berkshire School community to “save” any ticks that they found over the summer for testing this fall. The ticks collected by the community will be tested for various bacterial diseases with a technique called PCR. PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is a sensitive method to detect and amplify DNA from bacteria. In addition to the ticks collected by the community, Alli will use Dry Ice Traps to collect ticks from regions around campus. Double stick tape is used to trap ticks as they migrate towards the dry ice. Ticks are attracted to CO2 in breath. Here, the CO2 that is given off during sublimation of the dry ice mimics the CO2 in the breath of animals in the wild. This method can be used to clear hundreds to thousands of ticks in a given region1.
In addition to the surveillance aspect of her project, Alli will also use a quantitative PCR method to analyze pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPS) in collaboration with the Radolf Lab2 at University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, CT. PAMPS are genes that are turned on or off in response to pathogens like those that cause Lyme disease or Rickettsia. The molecular signature of PAMPS in ticks is currently unknown. Alli’s work on ticks could eventually lead to a prevention of Lyme disease in humans and other animals.