Unveiling the secret lives of ticks, Dr. Joe Busch leads us through fascinating research in population genetics. Joe, a Senior Research Scientist at the Pathogen & Microbiome Institute (PMI) at Northern Arizona University, studies cattle fever ticks in Texas and Mexico. These ticks pose a major threat to food security in the United States, and Joe uses DNA fingerprinting markers to track tick movements and look for the spread of distinct genetic groups in southern Texas. 

Joe received his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Biology from NAU, where he began specializing in molecular genetics. He later received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in population genetics. Outside of research, Joe loves the outdoors and nature; he enjoys taking hikes and walks while observing and listening to local wildlife. Joe also enjoys going on kayaking trips with his family.

What got you interested in population genetics? 

Joe’s interest in population genetics occurred during his time as an undergraduate. “I have always been fascinated with DNA as the blueprint of life,” Joe said. In his first month as a graduate student at the PMI institute working under Dr. Paul Keim, Joe described how inspired he was while working in the lab. Joe learned about PCR techniques and used a scientific pipette for the first time. He jokes, “I even wanted to buy my own p1000 to use at home, so I could use it to pipette TABASCO sauce!”

After Joe completed his Master’s degree, he honed in on the field of population genetics, specifically with gene flow in wildlife. Ticks and fleas are vectors of various infectious diseases for wildlife, and Joe wanted to know more about the role of transmission of these diseases through the lens of genetics.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I am interested in anything that improves our understanding of immune response in vertebrates.”

Although cattle fever ticks are the focus of Joe’s genetic research, the most important part of this work is assisting the USDA with preventing transmission of the parasite carried by the ticks. This parasite, called Babesia bovis, or Cattle Fever, is a highly fatal disease that threatens livestock in the United States. Management of this disease occurs through preventing contact with these ticks. The good news is that the United States is free of the parasite. However, it takes a lot of work and collaboration to keep the ticks from infesting populations of cattle in southern Texas. Because this research is so important, Joe and his team have maintained funding from 8 USDA grants over the past 12 years.

Joe shares a fascinating story about the efforts involved in keeping cattle safe from the ticks. Along the Rio Grande River bordering the southwest United States and Northern Mexico is a cattle fever tick quarantine zone. This is where USDA-APHIS “Tick Riders” (they ride on horseback along this narrow buffer zone looking for stray cattle and horses that may carry ticks from Mexico) have established a monitoring system for inspection. About 1,000 ticks are collected a year, and these ticks are then handed over to a system of researchers who share DNA from priority tick infestations with NAU, where Joe and his team look at their population genetics. 

Joe runs statistical analysis of the data that comes out of the lab and writes reports sent to the USDA. Joe also handles the coordination of research and agency partners in an effort to progress towards their shared research goals. Joe facilitates connections to obtain tick samples and DNA so that research at the PMI institute can continue. Joe also serves as the manager of the Biosafety Level 2 lab at the PMI institute, where 16 NAU faculty conduct research.

For Joe, the lab team is essential to the research. Both graduate and undergraduate students and staff are integral to data collection and analysis.

“As a scientist, you can sometimes think you know everything about your field, and then suddenly something new comes up, and you have to be willing to go where the data are taking you.”

What would you tell a young person who is interested in genetic research?

Joe emphasized that he enjoys training new scientists in the lab, and being able to share what he learned with undergraduates exploring research. “It is important for more students in Biology to have a chance to experience research at an earlier stage in their education.”

“I would encourage a young person to get into research, and to stick with it for a while.” Joe returned to the idea that science takes persistence and dedication. Sometimes science can get repetitive, but that is science! Joe also recognizes (and remembers) that research can seem unapproachable or intangible. He encourages interested people to go talk to faculty or staff involved with research, as many as you can, to learn more about research and to get involved!

In what ways can your studies be applied to citizen science? 

Anyone can learn about ticks, and many projects rely on citizen science! There are tick testing laboratories that rely on people bringing in ticks they have found on their pets or elsewhere. “People can help with tick research! Using samples sent in the mail, the laboratories can do genetic-based screening for disease, and identify the tick population. Tick-borne diseases are important for cattle and humans, such as Lyme disease as an example.” Joe talked about how citizen-collected tick samples were the basis of a previous project done at NAU on the American dog tick, and that the citizens who participated played an important role. 

The Festival believes that science should be accessible to anyone. Based on your experience, do you have a story you could share where either you felt or saw someone else included to participate in scientific research or activity?

Joe has seen many students get involved in research, and be able to find opportunities to do so. To him, this is a testament to the dedication NAU affords to research.

“Getting started isn’t always easy.” Joe would like to see more ways to encourage participation and to reach out to scientists. Joe takes his role seriously in teaching new students in the lab about genetic tools and generating real data. Sometimes time in the lab can be intense when there is a big push for data, and Joe turns the focus to ensure that the work is still fun and the students and staff are still learning. Above all, he encourages persistence and exploration in science. 

Interview and article by Communications Intern, Claire Gibson

Photo Credit: Ken Ng, PMI