In the last two years, Nathan Nieto's lab at Northern Arizona University received many packages – more than 12,000, to be exact.
In each of them was a tiny tick or several of them.
Nieto, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences of the NAU, collected a total of about 16,000 of the bugs as part of a massive Citizen Science-based study on ticks and the pathogens they carry.
For each copy, Neito asked sender to provide information on where, when and how it was found. His team then tested the DNA of the ticks on a number of different pathogens, including the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
The result is a map of the incidence of tick-human contact in the United States. By recording any location where a tick was found by a human, it points to hot spots of tick activity, Nieto said. Surprisingly, the study found ticks with the potential to carry Lyme and other tick-borne diseases in 83 countries where the disease control and prevention centers had not previously recorded them.
Among adults in a common tick species, 20 percent were tested positive for Lyme disease Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. Overall, the research team found 1
Mapping is important because Lyme has a severe infection with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, memory problems, skin rashes, arthritis, facial paralysis, brain inflammation and intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints and bones
According to the CDC, the disease affects annually nearly 300,000 Americans.
A card like this can help doctors become more aware of some of the less-anticipated places where the disease could appear, Nieto said. His study captures ticks in several states where many physicians do not collect them and have no systems to assess and report the risk of tick-borne diseases.
The disease moves through the landscape with humans and animals, "The crowdsourcing of the data was particularly useful to illustrate that," Nieto said.
"Ticks and species that we come into contact with throughout North America are dynamic," he said. "It is changing due to host movement, climate change, and people moving ticks and pathogens, and that requires us to be aware of tick-borne diseases across North America."
Nieto warned, however, just because of his study This is the case for some of the Arizona data, he said.
A few ticks that could carry Lyme or other diseases were sent in by the Pima and Maricopa Counties. but Ni Eto said that these ticks were most likely taken in another state and then transported to Arizona before people noticed and reported them.
Over the years, his lab has tested over 600 ticks in the state and never had a positive test Borrelia burgdorferi Bacteria, said Nieto
A few canyons deep in the Hualapai mountains are the only place Nieto
The money that allowed Nieto's lab to offer a free tick identification and testing service for the Citizen Science trial came from the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.
The number of ticks his research team received was six times the size expected, Nieto said. Once they had tested every mistake, they responded to the sender to tell them the test results.
Another snack, he said, is that citizen science is a great way to quickly gather a lot of information. Collecting these many samples alone would have cost him and his graduate students years.
Part of the tick DNA Nieto collects is sent through the city to the TGen North genome research institute, which has Pulliam Airport near the Flagstaff office.
In 2016, TGen developed a Lyme test that works by genetic sequencing. It targets and amplifies specific areas of DNA of Lyme bacteria as well as specific genes in related bacteria. This amplified DNA is sequenced, then researchers determine the bacterial species present in the sample by searching for the DNA code that is specific for Lyme or other bacteria.
Since then, researchers have refined the accuracy and sensitivity of the test and optimized adding more tick-borne disease targets to make it a more comprehensive test, said Jolene Bowers, a scientific assistant professor at TGen. This is particularly useful because multiple tick-borne pathogens can co-occur and cause co-infections, so doctors could use TGens to test them all, Bowers said.
So far, TGen has found its test method good for detecting Lyme in the early stages, when the bacteria are still in the blood of a person and have not yet migrated to the cartilage, she said. However, due to lack of funding and the difficulty of finding Lyme-positive human blood samples, TGen has not done much to validate the test for humans, but focuses on research and epidemiological applications.
Creating a test that could be used on patients was the final goal, but Bowers withdrawn from saying that TGens test could be the "end of all for Lyme Discovery."
It's a very niche test, she said. Instead, she suggested that it could be used as a companion to the test already on the market, which would be better for people who suffered from Lyme for a while.
"It's good to have the Arsenal, but there should be others who follow a different approach," said Bowers.