By Rebecca Jasulevicz
The woods of Monroe County possess a small but potentially deadly arachnid: the tick. While the tick itself is not dangerous, it can carry bacteria and protozoans that can cause serious illness.
A new bill enacted this past June with the help of ESU’s Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory will ensure that Pennsylvania residents become educated about Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
The bill, known as Act 83, establishes Pennsylvania’s Lyme Disease Task Force. The goal of the task force is to raise public awareness of Lyme disease, as well as increase prevention efforts throughout the state.
According to Dr. Jane Huffman, a distinguished professor of biology at ESU and the director of the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory, “The new law creates a task force at the Department of Health to educate the public about Lyme disease and related tick-borne illnesses and collaborate with other key agencies.”
With recommendations and suggestions made by the task force, the Department of Health will be able to update policies on how to recognize symptoms of Lyme disease, test ticks and publish infection rates on publically accessible websites, and determine the role of schools in the prevention of Lyme disease.
“I believe that some ESU students will be contributors to accomplishing the goals of the task force and contribute to a better understanding of vector-borne pathogens in Pennsylvania,” said Huffman.
While ESU students and laboratory technicians are responsible for much of the surveillance data on vector-borne pathogens, the bill truly came to pass through collaboration between many organizations, such as the Department of Health, Pennsylvania Medical Society, and the Department of Environmental Protection.
“The concept of a task force was the initiative of a number of individuals and Lyme Awareness groups, and we became part of it by virtue of the work that is being done at the DNA lab,” said Huffman.
ESU faculty and students have been studying Lyme disease for years, beginning with efforts made by Dr. Jane Huffman. Huffman joined the ESU faculty in 1986.
In 1996, graduate student Geraldine O’Dowd began studying under Huffman, completing a thesis that surveyed the Delaware Water Gap for deer ticks infected with Borrelia burgdorferi.
Since the 1996 study, the prevalence of ticks and tickborne diseases in Monroe County has been a continued interest of the laboratory.
Between 2004 and 2006, 443 ticks were collected and screened for Borrelia burgdorferi, Babesia microti, and Anaplasma phagocytophila, which are protozoans and bacteria that can cause parasitic diseases and fever, headache, and myalgia in their hosts.
“Polymerase Chain Reaction analysis of 443 ticks revealed 19 (4.3 percent) to be positive for Borrelia burgdorferi, and 27 (6.1 percent) tested positive for Anaplasma phagocytophila. Analysis of 272 ticks revealed that 2 nymphs and 7 adults were infected with Bartonellaspp. (3.3 percent) and 3 nymphs and 14 adults were positive for Bartonella henselae(6.3 percent),” reported the study, which was published in 2010.
The Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory is currently researching more than just ticks. In collaboration with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, the lab will be focusing on creating genetic profiles of hatchery-raised trout and wild brown trout, as well as their susceptibility to bacterial infections.
Other projects include identifying species of spring snails from Arizona with the Arizona Division of Fish and Wildlife, and creating genetic profiles of river otters across the country. The occurrence of Babesia in aquatic mammals is also an area of interest.
Undergraduate student Scott O’Donnell is researching the application of plant DNA markers in forensic botany. Previously, O’Donnell researched wood turtle genetics.
According to Huffman, “The laboratory is also involved with wildlife forensic cases submitted primarily by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.”
ESU students and alumni are imperative to the functioning of the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory.
Huffman said, “ESU students did a tremendous amount of work leading to our understanding of vector-borne disease. The students and the technicians — former students — are what drive the enthusiasm and discovery at the lab.”
Interested students can send inquiries to Dr. Jane Huffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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