Buggin’ Out

While some may find deer ticks to be a mere nuisance to society, UW-Eau Claire microbiology professor Lloyd Turtinen holds a much higher respect for the little creatures.
After a brush with the bug five years ago, Turtinen has devoted much of his time to finding how common it is for ticks in this area to carry Lyme Disease.

“I pulled a tick off of me, I guess about five years ago, and it was imbedded pretty deep,” Turtinen said. “I was concerned that I might get Lyme Disease from it so I brought it to the clinic and we discussed treatment and basically their policy at that time then was not to give any antibiotic unless it was a rash.”
Turtinen said this news troubled him because not all people who suffer from tick bites acquire a rash. Rather, after researching information from the CDC, the professor found approximately 75 percent of all cases deal with a visual after effect.
Since that day five years ago, Turtinen has been doing extensive research funded through the university to see just how prominent these bugs are in the area. More specifically, the professor has been taking individual ticks and extracting their DNA entirely.
They then take that DNA and run it through a reaction called the real-time polymerase chain reaction. This takes short DNA primers that will bind to a gene within the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme Disease.
“It will amplify it so much that you can actually see it on this instrument being replicated,” Turtinen said. “So we can have the results in about two and a half hours, whether or not the tick was carrying the bacteria.”
Turtinen said research started off specifically in Eau Claire county. But he didn’t do it alone. He had his Infectious Disease Ecology students from Biology 306 go out and find tick samples for three years. He said during that time, he and his classes ended up looking in 21 different counties and collected approximately 341 ticks altogether.
Their results showed that the three years of research, 35.6 percent of ticks found were positive for the Lyme Disease bacteria.
He advised others to be careful and always stay aware if there is a chance of tick exposure. Checking regularly for them on exposed skin is another good tip.
One student particularly interested in Turtinen’s research was senior biochemistry, molecular biology double major Alyssa Kruger. She said Lyme Disease is a very relatable topic and it intrigued her interest.
“I went ahead and talked to Dr. Turtinen about doing research with him and joining his research team because I knew about the research that he was doing on Lyme Disease,” Kruger said. “I felt it was a very interesting project to start working on so I wanted to join.”
She said being able to apply the techniques she’s learned in classes through this research opportunity has been very interesting.
Beforehand, she said students learn about the process ,but until there is an actual chance to implement them, it can be somewhat difficult to understand.
While her year long devotion to this research is now over, Kruger said she feels the work they have done isbeneficial to the local area. She said if nothing else, it raises awareness about ticks beingin the area.
“Lately there have been articles written about the increase of Lyme Disease cases so an increase in the bacteria and ticks itself kind of helps to explain some of that and provide some reasoning for the increase in Lyme Disease cases,” Kruger said. “So it’s kind of helpful to the health department.”
Turtinen said his students were a great help to the research. In fact, they did most of the research once incorporated into the program. While this specific research is over for the time being, he hopes he can continue if the proper funding is allocated.
“This was really a pilot study,”  Turtinen said. “Obviously, if you want to get more accurate answers on what’s really out there, you have to do a lot more ticks, you have to look in more areas and get an idea of what vegetation or what other biotic factors may play a role in determining the prevalence of the bacteria.”
Even with all this information found, Turtinen said this research doesn’t even tell the entire story. During all of their studies, they looked at only adult female deer ticks. He said this research doesn’t even touch on nymphs or pre-adult ticks.
This is because they are very hard to see due to their size and would have made studies rather difficult. But he added these smaller bugs could be the most harmful since they are found to regularly carry the Lyme Disease bacteria.
Regardless, people should be aware of the prevalence of ticks in the Eau Claire area as well as surrounding areas, Turtinen said.
It seems from the university’s research,  these bugs may be more harmful than originally thought.