Montana State University

MSU professor wins award from National Geographic to research bacteria of insects that spread diseases

December 7, 2015 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

MSU Assistant Professor Ryan Jones, left, in Peru in March 2015. Jones and MSU graduate student Nick Pinkham will travel to the Peruvian Amazon in March to collect thousands of mosquitos, fleas and ticks to study. Photo courtesy of Ryan Jones.

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For years, scientists have known that the Amazon is one of the most diverse places on Earth, but little is known about the bacterial composition of the insects that live there or how those bacteria interact with pathogens that cause disease, according to a Montana State University professor who hopes his new research on the insects will help change that.

Ryan Jones, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology and fellow in the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, will travel to the Peruvian Amazon in March to collect thousands of mosquitos, fleas and ticks to bring back to MSU to study. Nick Pinkham, an MSU graduate student who works in Jones’ lab, will accompany him.

The four-week expedition is being supported by an $18,000 grant from the National Geographic Society.

While in Peru, Jones and Pinkham will travel around the county’s Loreto region via boat. Loreto is Peru’s largest region that covers almost one-third of the country, and is also one of the most sparsely populated regions. The team will mostly stay in small towns of 200-400 people.

“The majority of the Amazonian portion of Peru is in that area,” Jones said. “it’s very rural.”

Jones and Pinkham plan to collect fleas, ticks and mosquitos from all over the region and then bring those samples back to MSU. Jones estimated that the duo will collect between 5,000 and 10,000 samples during the course of the trip.

Once Jones and Pinkham return to the lab, they’ll identify each species and then select a collection to study that represents a large spread over geography and species.

Next, they’ll use a technology known as high-throughput DNA sequencing to sequence large amounts of bacterial DNA – Jones estimates that they will obtain 50,000 to 100,000 bacterial sequences per insect. The DNA sequence data will allow the researchers to characterize the bacterial communities living inside the insects.

Finally, the team will analyze the data to determine the relationship between the microbial composition of the insects with disease-causing agents. Essentially, the team hopes to discover how non-pathogenic bacteria living inside the insects impact the insects’ ability to spread disease. 

“We’ll be working to determine the effects of biogeography on microbial community composition, and to assess the relationship between microbial community composition with the presence of specific disease-causing agents,” Jones said. “If we see a disease that’s prevalent in one area or another, we might find a correlation with bacteria that is present in the insect sample from that area. For example, other studies have shown that certain bacteria will limit the ability of mosquitos to spread dengue.”

From the research, Jones hopes to contribute information that could help combat the spread of disease.

“We’re seeing diseases where we haven’t seen them before,” Jones said, pointing to a dengue outbreak last month in Hawaii as one example. “One of the key parameters in epidemiological studies is transmission. If you want to predict how disease will spread, transmission is really important.”

Mark Jutila, head of the MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said that Jones is part of a new group of “outstanding” faculty in the department who are greatly expanding research efforts on microbiology ecology, an area of research emphasis at MSU for decades.  

The majority of past efforts, however, focused on microbial communities in the environment, Jutila said.

“The exciting thing here is the expansion into the study of microbial communities in insects, which complements other new disease research in the department focused on microbial communities in animals and humans. These are cutting-edge areas of science that enrich not only our departmental research efforts, but also our instructional efforts through direct participation of students, as well as translation of knowledge to the classroom."

Cathy Whitlock, MSU director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, said that Jones’ work is a great example of interdisciplinary science.

“His analysis of the microbes that live in fleas, ticks, and mosquitos will help us better understand the hidden ecology of the rainforest and also provide important information for human health,” Whitlock said. “New discoveries are sure to come from this expedition up the Amazon.”

The MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology is housed within the MSU College of Agriculture and MSU College of Letters and Science. The Montana Institute on Ecosystems is a community of scholars from across the Montana University System with a shared vision to advance integrated environmental sciences and related fields. In addition to the funding from the National Geographic Society, Jones’ work is supported by funds from the MSU Office of the Provost, the MSU Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development and the Montana EPSCoR program.

Contact: Ryan Jones,