MILWAUKEE--A tick that hitched a ride in a Wisconsin researcher's nostril when he returned from Uganda last year may be a disease-carrying species that someday could pose a threat in the U.S.
The species' DNA had never been sequenced for the U.S. National Tick Collection -- the largest tick collection in the world at Georgia Southern University -- until Tony Goldberg and his steady forceps provided the opportunity.
"When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off," said Goldberg, a professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin -Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and associate director for research at the UW-Madison Global Health Institute. "But my sense of being grossed out was balanced by my scientific curiosity."
Goldberg twice a year travels to Kibale National Park, an almost 500-square-mile forest in southwestern Uganda with the highest concentration of primates in the world. There he researches how infectious diseases in primates spread and evolve to determine how they could make the leap to humans.
It's possible the tick Goldberg brought home in his nostril is the same tick that researchers have noticed in the nostrils of Kibale chimpanzees.
If so, ticks that feed on apes and humans may spread diseases between the species, Goldberg and several colleagues concluded in an article published this week in the online issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Given that this tick avoided detection during an international flight back to Wisconsin, and the frequency of global travel today, it's conceivable the newly identified tick could establish exotic tick populations and spread disease to other countries, Goldberg said.
Consider the mosquito that hitched a ride on a transatlantic flight in 1999, then bit a bird in the U.S., starting the spread of West Nile virus here, Goldberg said.
So far this year, 44 people in 48 states and the District of Columbia on the U.S. mainland have died of West Nile virus diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thousands of tourists a year visit the Ugandan tick's home in Kibale National Park.
Goldberg discovered his transatlantic hitchhiker three days after he left Uganda, when he was back in his UW-Madison laboratory. He calmly removed it with long forceps, guided by a flashlight and mirror, and put it in the freezer in a sealed tube for further study.
Through genetic sequencing, Goldberg and two colleagues at other universities determined his nostril tick was of the known parasitic and bacterial disease-carrier genus Amblyomma.
Goldberg said he has felt fine since his return from Uganda and is enjoying his humorous notoriety.
"It's the ultimate pride in medical research to study a disease you've contracted and suffered from," he said. "I could be the court jester with this. I certainly have a lifetime's worth of bar stories."
While looking for a link between his nostril tick and the Kibale chimps he was studying, Goldberg contacted his mentor, Harvard University chimp expert Richard Wrangham, who had just begun using high-resolution digital photography to study baby chimps from a distance.
Wrangham took a closer look at his high-resolution photos. And sure enough, ticks were lodged in one-fifth of the chimps' noses.
"If you're a tick on a chimp, you're in danger if you can't hide," Goldberg said. "Chimps have little noses and fat fingers. If I were a tick, I'd probably go up the nose, too."
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