Faculty Profile: Ryan Jones studies insects and bacteria abroad

Most people do everything they can to avoid mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other blood-sucking creatures and want nothing to do with any exotic Amazonian bacteria, but occasionally there comes an adventurous academic like MSU professor Ryan Jones.

Jones began working at MSU in 2013 as an assistant research professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. “I sort of became interested in microbiology by accident,” Jones said. His research was originally in the field of biology studying parrots and songbirds. He went on to attend graduate school where he learned how to generate and analyze DNA sequence data. Prior to coming to MSU, he worked in a genetics lab at the University of Colorado, where he studied the bacterial communities living inside fleas. This eventually led Jones to be considered a microbiologist, due to his growing experience in the field. However, he said: “I really consider myself an evolutionary geneticist / community ecologist who happens to study microbes.”

On a mission to see how the bacterial composition in insects reacts with disease-causing pathogens in Peru’s Loreto region, Jones is headed to South America for a four-week expedition supported by a $18,000 grant from the National Geographic Society. The Loreto region covers the vast majority of Peru’s Amazon territory. Jones hopes to return with anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 samples of insects to ensure the research conducted represents a wide range of both geographical locations and insect species. Following the collection of samples and selection of the group of samples to be researched, high-throughput DNA sequencing will be used to sequence the 50,000 to 100,000 bacterial DNA sequences to be found in each sample insect.

Using this method, Jones and graduate student Nick Pinkham will analyze how the non-harmful bacteria living inside insects impacts their ability to spread diseases. “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 mosquitoes to spread dengue.” The research will ideally help in the prediction of where diseases are likely to spring up and spread. 

In addition to his research trip, Jones will be taking students to the Amazon for two weeks this summer as part of his summer course on tropical diseases.