Upstate’s study of vector-borne diseases takes researchers to state park
Saravanan Thangamani, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Upstate Medical University and director of the SUNY Center for Environmental Health and Medicine, brought his team of researchers on a field surveillance expedition in search of ticks at Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville. The visit June 27 was the first in a series of expeditions designed to understand the prevalence of tick species in the Central New York area.
Using three techniques—flagging, draggin and dry ice traps—Thangamani’s lab team will assess tick-borne pathogens and identify the rate of co-infection in these ticks. “A single tick can contain more than one pathogen, including: Borrelia and Powassan, Borrelia and Babesia, Borellia and Anaplasma,” said Thangamani.
One female tick is capable of laying thousands of eggs, which is one of the reasons ticks are so prevalent in our area. “A single tick can transmit many different pathogens. This intrigued us and we want to understand with an open mind. Let’s go into the woods, collect ticks, identify which types of ticks are prevalent in this area based on the season, and begin to understand what they carry,” said Thangamani.
Within the first five minutes of flagging and dragging, the team collected approximately nine adult ticks. The flagging and dragging techniques work best to locate deer ticks—the only tick that carries the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Trapping involves placing a small amount of dry ice onto a felt cloth and letting it sit for 30 to 60 minutes. The dry ice releases carbon dioxide into the air, mimicking a human’s body odor, and attracts the ticks to the felt.
All ticks are brought back to the lab, chilled, and studied. In total, the team collected 26 female, 11 male, and 78 nymph ticks within a two-acre quadrant of the state park.
In addition to pathogens, the research team will assess how environmental changes—natural and anthropogenic—are impacting the expansion of ticks and tick-borne diseases in the region.
Field collections will occur multiple times a year for several years. “We will eventually be able to describe the emergence or re-emergence of tick-borne diseases in Central New York,” Thangamani said.
Thangamani says rather than avoiding outdoor activities, take an active role in protecting yourself and your family. “Ticks thrive in humid environments. Stay on trails when hiking, preferably as close to the middle of the trail as possible.” In addition to wearing clothing that covers your skin, he recommends using a repellent and doing frequent skin checks after walks and hikes.
Thangamani’s lab includes Meghan Hermance, PhD, a research scientist working on understanding the complex immune response at the tick-virus-host interface; Erin Reynolds, an senior research support specialist, working on developing tick-transmission model for Heatland virus transmission; Jahnavi Bhaskar, an research support specialist, working on identifying immunogenic proteins from mosquito saliva; Allen Esterly, an graduate student, working on understanding the role of mosquito salivary proteins enhancing Zika virus transmission; and Charles Hart, a graduate student, working on understanding the effect of co-infections on the clinical outcome of Lyme and Powassan encephalitis.
Thangamani, a SUNY Empire Innovation Professor who previously worked at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, studies Lyme disease and Powassan encephalitis, the impact ecological changes have on the expansion of Powassan virus and other tick-borne diseases in Upstate New York, and the ecology of infectious diseases. He is a member of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Additional research activities conducted by Thangamani’s lab can be found at: http://www.upstate.edu/search/?tab=people&ID=thangams&q=thangaman
Caption: Conducting tick research at Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville from the Thangamani Lab are, from left, Jahnavi Bhaskar, Allen Esterly, Erin Reynolds and Meghan Hermance. Not pictured is Charles Hart.