About This Project
To “show one's metal” is to reveal one’s strength of character. Ticks may have tiny character, but I propose they do have metal! As blood sucking parasites, ticks must penetrate thick animal skin to obtain food. I propose that ticks enrich their appendages with metals to strengthen them for penetration. I intend to use electron microscopy to quantify the chemical elements in the appendages of deer, dog, and lone star ticks to observe their composition and determine if ticks employ metals.
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What is the context of this research?
Ticks are well known parasites of mammals, but despite being infamous for the diseases they carry, there is little knowledge about why they are such successful parasites. One reason might be in the chemical makeup of their biting appendages. Ticks are arachnids like spiders, and many spiders have metals (Zn, Mn) in their fangs to add strength. As spiders use their fangs for biting, ticks use their appendages for cutting and anchoring in skin. As ticks grow and molt, they prey on successively larger hosts (mouse -> dog -> deer), which might necessitate stronger appendages. To understand this, I will try and answer 3 questions: 1) Are metals incorporated into tick appendages? 2) Does the quantity of metals change throughout a tick's life? 3) Do different ticks use different metals?
What is the significance of this project?
Those who have removed ticks from pets, or themselves been bit by a tick, understand the unsettling feeling, which is quickly followed by disgust and fear of disease. However, as a scientist, these feelings are often followed by surprise and fascination for how such a tiny animal can perform such a remarkable task. This fascination has led me to use EDS to examine 3 species of ticks and determine if they rely on metals like zinc and/or calcium to strengthen their tiny biting parts. Surprisingly, this type of research has never been performed on ticks, so it is unknown if they enrich their appendages (chelicerae, hypostome) with metals. Such knowledge may prove useful in developing strategies to prevent tick bites and thereby tick-borne diseases.
What are the goals of the project?
The main goal of this experiment is to quantify all the chemical elements in the cuticles of 3 species of tick. I will use a well known method called energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to quantify all chemical elements in preserved specimens of all life stages. I will analyze the claws, chelicerae, hypostome, scutum and alloscutum. This elemental data will will not only help us understand why ticks are such successful parasites, but may provide insights why ticks (like other arachnids) rely on some chemical elements and not others for strengthening their cuticles. This research will be used for my MS thesis and the data will be posted here, published in scientific journals, and presented at the American Arachnological Society.
I have received training for EDS through a series of courses in Nanocharacterization and my PI has paid for additional training on the university's scanning electron microscope. However, I currently lack enough funds to perform scans of all of my specimens, which is necessary for making my research as comparative (across species) as possible This research will be part of a broader project that examines other blood-feeding parasites such as mosquitoes (which I am also working on), as well as other arachnids (worked on by other students in lab).
I have received training in EDS in the Materials Characterization Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts Lowell under the guidance of Dr. Earl Ada and Dr. Rick Hochberg. I have collected nearly all of the specimens that I will need; they are stored in my principle investigator's laboratory (Dr. Hochberg). I plan to begin mounting specimens in February, 2018 and scanning specimens with EDS in March of 2018. Data collection will be completed by the end of summer 2018.
Feb 09, 2018
Mar 15, 2018
Scan multiple specimens of all three species of ticks
Apr 01, 2018
Begin posting data on Experiment.com.
May 15, 2018
Collect additional specimens if necessary for more EDS scans
Jun 02, 2018
Make poster presentation of preliminary data at the American Arachnological Society at Eastern Michigan University
Meet the Team
I’m graduating with a B.S in Biology from the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) this spring semester (2018). I have been accepted as a MS student in the Biology program (Biotechnology option) at UML. I intend to graduate with a MS in 2019.
I’ve always been interested in biology, so deciding to take it on as a major was not a hard decision for me. I believe that my passion for biology stems from growing up with lots of farm animals and always being outdoors. Ticks are common parasites around the farms of New England and so I’ve dealt with them for most of my life. But I never would have guessed that I would one day be collecting them for research! After reading articles on ticks and thinking about how to design an experiment on their exoskeleton, I’ve become more interested than I ever thought possible.
I hope that my research provides some useful insights into tick biology and that current and future scientists will find it useful in their own investigations. Ticks and tick-borne illnesses are on the rise across the country, and I would be proud to play a role in understanding why this is and what can be done to slow their progress. Perhaps a better understanding of their exoskeletons will provide some unique insights?
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