In the fight against Zika, bubonic plague, and other infectious diseases in the Amazon, microbial biologist and National Geographic grantee Ryan Jones has found an unlikely and adorable ally: puppies.
“We are collecting bloodsucking creatures like fleas and mosquitoes because these are the creatures that transmit diseases from wildlife to humans,” says Jones, who recently traveled to almost 50 villages in the Peruvian Amazon to collect thousands of insects. “Dogs live in very close proximity to humans, and fleas can easily bite a dog and then bite a human, transmitting diseases from dogs to people.”
It turns out that there are good bacteria that live in fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, actually preventing the transmission of diseases like dengue, Zika, bubonic plague, or Bartonella,” Jones explains. Studying how the good and bad bacteria interact helps Jones understand why diseases may be so rampant in some areas and less so in others. That data can be used to predict which communities are at higher risk of infection and to develop strategies to combat further outbreak.
Fleas transmit bacterial diseases, like the plague and typhus. To collect and study the bacteria living inside the itchy and infectious critters, Jones and his graduate student, Nicholas Pinkham, went right to the very hairy source—dogs—but not without assistance from some very helpful, albeit unofficial, expedition partners: “Every little village that we pull our boat up to, we are immediately surrounded by all of the children who live there, and they quickly bring us to all the puppies and nice dogs in the village. It’s very exciting for them to get to take part in this, and it gives us an outreach opportunity to teach some basic science and to get the kids involved in research,” Jones says.
Working with locals was Jones’s favorite part of the expedition, but it did necessitate some unexpected diplomacy. “There’s one particular guy who really wanted us to acknowledge that we liked his dog. He had a Peruvian hairless dog, which is the national dog of Peru, and they just have a little bit of hair on their head and no hair on the rest of their body. There were probably 50 to a hundred fleas right in the little tuft of orange hair coming out the top of his head,” Jones recalls. “This guy would only shake our hands after we specifically said, ‘Yes, we like your dog very much.'”
Mosquitoes, which can carry Zika, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile, and malaria, are a little simpler for Jones and Pinkham to catch. “Nick and I will just walk into the jungle and stand there and wait for the mosquitoes to land on each of us,” says Jones, “and then we suck them off of each other with aspirators. It’s actually relatively easy fieldwork, but I’ve never been itchier.”
Jones and Pinkham place all the bugs they catch in an alcohol solution that immediately kills them and any diseases they may be carrying. The scientists will then use DNA sequencing to figure out how the good and bad bacteria are distributed across the Amazon.
“As a microbial biologist, I study the small things. Nobody has looked in the Amazon before for microbial diversity in insects, and so much of what we discover will be new life-forms that have never been observed before,” Jones explains. “I’m in the middle of the Amazon looking at parrots and river dolphins, fish and amazing birds, and so I love that as much as the next person. But the microbes on this planet are what are really driving life. They are shifting nutrients from one ecosystem to another. They’re responsible for all life on Earth, really.”
Microbes are small but mighty, critical in humanity’s fight against future outbreak. Scientists have already begun releasing mosquitoes with the beneficial bacteria into certain regions, and the results are in that this practice truly compromises diseases’ ability to spread.
Jones may be nicknamed “the flea hunter of the Amazon” and get 500 insect bites a day while he carries out fieldwork that few, if any, would call glamorous, but he is part of a larger, crucial effort to improve the health and lives of countless people, all while he gets to travel the world and study something he’s incredibly passionate about. As he puts it, “Having to work with fleas and mosquitoes is a very small price to pay for that experience.”
Ryan Jones is a grantee of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants, and watch more explorers in action in the rest of the Expedition Raw series.
Check out more expedition photos from photographer Tom Rayner.
Producer/Editor: Nora Rappaport
Series Producer: Chris Mattle
Graphics: Chris Mattle and Babak Shahbodaghloo
Video and Featured Image: Tom Rayner