University of Saskatchewan

July 23, 2014   

U of S Student Studies Tick DNA to Get Ahead of Potential Health Threat

Krakowetz prepares ticks for DNA analysis in her lab
Photo of Chantel Krakowetz By Scott Bell
May 17, 2010

By Lisa Johnson

While most people try to keep blood-sucking parasites as far away as possible, University of Saskatchewan biology student Chantel Krakowetz surrounds herself with ticks to study their population genetics and the bacteria they contain.

The lab she shares contains vials and fridges full of ticks. It is decorated with a poster that reads: “WANTED: ticks. Dead or alive.”

“Ticks are one of the most important carriers of bacteria and viruses that cause disease in humans in North America,” says Krakowetz’s supervisor U of S biology professor Neil Chilton.

Tick season has begun early this year in Saskatchewan, and understanding which ticks might carry harmful bacteria is extremely important to Health Canada, which monitors tick populations and assesses risks to people.

As a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient, Krakowetz has been awarded $100,000 over two years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to advance knowledge of deer ticks and the bacteria they carry.

“Chantel’s work will make an important contribution to studies measuring human health risks of the deer tick as its distribution in Canada changes,” says Chilton.

The deer tick (also known as the black-legged tick) originated from the U.S., expanding northwards since the 1970s, and is expected to establish even further north as climate change continues.

There are about 10 established populations of the deer tick in southeastern Canada.

Deer ticks can carry a number of bacteria, including the species of bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Lyme disease affects more than 20,000 people in the U.S. every year.

Left untreated, arthritis can develop in patients infected with Lyme disease.

By comparing the genetic makeup of different deer tick populations from around the U.S. and Canada, Krakowetz will learn whether the bacterium that causes Lyme disease is associated with specific strains of ticks.

“It still remains to be seen exactly where these ticks are coming from and what strains of bacteria they are bringing with them,” she explains.

Her findings could be useful to the study of mosquitoes, which carry microorganisms that cause malaria, a disease that affects over 300 million people worldwide.

She credits fellow PhD student Shaun Dergousoff for piquing her interest in studying ticks.

Working with Dergousoff and her colleagues, Krakowetz learned how to gather ticks, grind them up, and examine them on a molecular level.

Ticks are collected by dragging a cloth attached to a pole over grasses and shrubs. In the lab, she extracts the DNA of individual ticks (and the DNA of bacteria they are carrying) for genetic analyses.

More than just an academic award, the Vanier graduate scholarship is given to those who show special leadership and positively engage with the community.

Having the value of her research recognized by the Vanier is important for Krakowetz, who is actively involved in Saskatoon with Saskatchewan Autism Treatment Services and the Canadian Cancer Society.

“This scholarship is incredibly motivating – it is reassurance that my research is not only headed in the right direction, but that it is going to have a positive impact,” she says.

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Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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