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New tools, old ticks: uncovering the transmission biology of disease vectors through emerging technologies
This project will combine chemical physics, proteomics and disease ecology to gain novel insights into the transmission and feeding ecology of an important disease vector, the tick species Ixodes ricinus. In harnessing the power of novel technologies, including spectroscopy and proteomics, and applying them to a significant disease problem, this project will be breaking new ground at the interface of molecular, environmental, and health sciences.
Background and Aims
Vector-borne diseases account for much of the world’s health problems. In the northern hemisphere, ticks in the genus Ixodes are the principal vectors for emerging diseases including Lyme borreliosis (LB) and tick-borne encephalitis.
A striking knowledge gap with respect to tick-borne diseases is the lack of quantitative information about how ticks interact with their biotic and abiotic environment. Ixodes ticks are considered host generalists that acquire their blood meal, of which they take several throughout their life, from a wide range of vertebrate species. In the case of LB, only some species (small mammals, certain birds) are competent reservoirs, whereas others (e.g., deer) are non-competent and do not transmit. The frequency at which ticks feed on different host species within a particular environment will therefore have a profound effect on local pathogen prevalence in ticks. However, there is currently no established technology for determining retrospectively which host species a tick collected in the field has taken its blood meal from. Likewise, there is a lack of methods for determining whether a tick acquired its last blood meal one month or one year ago and thus how quickly ticks are progressing to their next life stage. These technology gaps continue to limit our mechanistic understanding of how the local environmental conditions ticks are exposed to (e.g. vertebrate host communities, climate) can drive human disease risk.
The project has three major aims:
- To establish the use of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to age-grade free-living ticks1
- To apply tandem mass spectral libraries to discriminate the sources of tick blood meals in European ticks2
- To dissect transmission dynamics in high and low risk sites for Lyme borreliosis using the approaches developed in aims 1) and 3)
1 Reeves WK, Peiri KHS, Scholte E-J, Wirtz RA, and Dowell FE. 2010. Age-grading the biting midge Culicoides sonorensis using near-infrared spectroscopy. Medical And Veterinary Entomology, 24(1), 32–37. Med Vet Entomol, 2010 vol. 24 (1) pp. 32-37.
2 Özlem Önder, Wenguang Shao, Brian D Kemps, Henry Lam, and D. Brisson. 2013. Identifying sources of tick blood meals using unidentified tandem mass spectral libraries. Nature Communications, 4, 1746–10.
Training and Environment
The project will provide exceptional opportunities for training in state-of-the-art technologies in infectious disease research. At the same time, these technologies have much broader applicability, giving the scholar useful transferable skills for a variety of career choices in biomedical sciences.
The Wynne lab will provide training in spectroscopic techniques. Experiments will be based around a new (2014) state-of-the-art Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer from Bruker with detection capabilities from far- to near-IR. New statistical analysis methods will be implemented such as neural network analysis of the age-dependent spectra.
The Burchmore lab will offer in-depth training in the use of mass spectrometry for host blood meal identification based on proteomic signatures. This will include the potential to develop novel approaches such as the use of MALDI – TOF/TOF mass spectrometers for high throughput acquisition of spectral libraries.
Biek and Ferguson will provide guidance and training in field and lab-based ecological techniques as well as epidemiological concepts and models and their applications in the context of disease control. Due to the nature of the project the scholar will also be developing important general skills in experimental design as well as statistical and computational analyses.
The scholar will be joining a vibrant community of students and postdocs working on interdisciplinary approaches in infectious disease and life sciences, providing opportunities to develop broader scientific perspectives. E.g. see
Applicants should have a first or upper second class degree in a relevant science discipline (e.g. molecular biology, zoology, biochemistry, bioinformatics), be highly motivated and have excellent English communication skills. The successful candidate will need to be enthusiastic about acquiring new skills in an interdisciplinary setting and have a strong interest in biological processes as well as new technologies such as mass spec and infrared spectroscopy. Research experience, laboratory skills, knowledge about ecological fieldwork, and demonstrated ability to work independently will be considered an advantage.
Read additional background on the Lord Kelvin-Adam Smith PhD Scholarship
*In the first instance, prospective students should review the project proposal and make contact with the Lead Supervisor for the project to discuss their eligibility for the project.
For MVLS applications we advise that any application is made via the online application system, this can be found here. Applicants should select "MVLS - Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Scholarship" for the programme of study and give the title of the project and supervisors name. *