U of S researcher studies tick populations and the diseases they spread

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“Ticks wanted: dead or alive.” The poster on Neil Chilton’s lab door invites residents to bring in the remains of their tick encounters this summer for DNA research.

Chilton, a parasitologist, and his students use some of the same technology and research methods that crime scene investigators use. Most ticks have a hard exoskeleton and to extract a ticks' DNA, graduate students pulverize their specimens with small drill bits to isolate and purify DNA molecules to be studied.

“With this research we hope to learn more about what the ticks are doing, why we are seeing an increase in the last few years and the number of different species,” said Chilton. They are also exploring tick evolution, diversity and migration while identifying the micro-organisms that live inside them.

Chilton and his team of students head out during the summer to collect specimens by waving white flannel flags across leaves, flowers and branches. For those not too keen on helping his research, Chilton noted that “ticks aren't very active. They can't leap at you as you walk by, but if you brush up against them, they can latch on to you.” He recommended you stay on trails and avoid deep bush when outdoors in the summer.

The call for more ticks comes from a discovery Chilton made about tick-borne infections.

“It turns out that it is actually bacteria, not the ticks themselves that cause infections like Lyme disease,” said Chilton. “Additionally, there are beneficial bacteria living in ticks that restrict the growth or transmission of pathogens.” One day this research could help control infectious diseases spread by ticks.

While Lyme disease is the illness most associated with ticks, Chilton explained that the chances of contracting it in Saskatchewan are low. This is because the black-legged tick, which carries the disease, is found in southern Ontario and the eastern United States. According to Saskatchewan Health, more than 97 per cent of ticks found in Saskatchewan are the American dog tick, which is not associated with Lyme disease.

Chilton has several tips to avoid becoming a tick’s next meal particularly for kids at summer camp:

- If ticks are in your area, wear long-sleeved shirts that fit tightly around the wrist, and long-legged pants tucked into socks or boots. Light-coloured clothing makes it easier to see if there are any ticks on your clothes.

- Wear shoes that cover your entire foot — avoid sandals in areas where ticks might be.

- Use insect repellents that contain DEET to repel ticks. Repellents can be applied to clothing as well as to exposed skin.

- Ask younger children to watch for freckles that move to help them find ticks on their skin.

If you have a tick to donate, please contact Chilton’s office at 306-966-4407.

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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