Dr. Michael Collins’ Avian Research Provides Insight Into Human Diseases

A male professor in a tan button up smiles at the camera while holding up a small, yellow and gray bird resting on his hand
Dr. Michael Collins of the Department of Biology

For the past two and a half years, Rhodes College biology professor Michael Collins has been conducting avian research with a focus on why some bird species are abundant in some geographical areas and absent in others. This has opened up a gateway for understanding ecological processes, including those that influence tick-borne diseases and even human health.

Part of the research’s focus is how birds are affected in different ways by avian malaria, which is an insect-borne disease. Mosquitos or biting flies, for example, can transmit infections from an infected bird to an uninfected bird while feeding. Ultimately, understanding the dynamics of avian malaria can provide insight into how and when diseases such as avian flu and West Nile Virus are able to spread from other animals to humans.

“I like to think our understanding of these disease systems, whether it’s birds, ticks, tick-borne diseases or looking at avian malaria between the avian host and different lineages of parasites, can really inform to some degree not just our broad understanding of these processes but also help to reduce the spread of disease,” says Collins.

This ongoing project has been a collaborative effort between Collins, some of his students, as well as a partnership with Ames Plantation, which is an hour and a half east of the Rhodes campus and home to large fields, forests, and wildlife. Collins and his student researchers go there to collect data for two weeks each June. This past summer, they sampled from around 40 different bird species and observed 20 species of parasites.

The team sampled birds from field sites with mist nets; identified their ages and sex; attached United States Geological Survey bands, and drew blood samples. In the lab, they then extracted DNA and ran analyses to detect infections. Positive infections were sequenced to identify the particular parasite lineage (species), and they also examined statistical relationships between predictor variables and malaria infection.

Mitch Trychta ’16 says about his experience doing undergraduate research with Collins, “I’ve enjoyed identifying novel relationships between birds and their parasites through intensive lab work, as much as I have my field work. With the progression of the fall semester I’ll be working to author a publication that showcases the value and comprehensive nature of my research.”

The research has been made possible due to a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which is enhancing the learning environment for both faculty and students through research and creative projects, innovative teaching strategies, and further connections with Memphis and the Mid-South. This grant not only has provided opportunities for collaborations within Rhodes, but also for the college to work with researchers at the University of Tennessee, the University of Memphis, and Christian Brothers University.

As for the future of Collins’ research, he hopes to expand it globally and to suggest ecological management practices that might create lower health risks for humans when it comes to tick-borne diseases. He says he and the team are applying for grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health to continue to strengthen and ensure the future of the research.

By Lizzie Choy ’17