Ticks are known for their spread of Lyme disease, and many factors, such as climate change, have only increased the number and severity of Lyme cases. While us at LymeNow are skeptical of these scientific discoveries in actual practice, we are excited to share what may impact the future of Lyme disease as we know it.
US experts have found a way of editing the genes of the spider-like creatures, which feed on blood.
It opens the possibility to researchers being able to alter parts of a tick’s DNA that helps them carry and transmit the disease-causing bacteria.
And the discovery could pave the way for genetically-engineered ticks, which are unable to spread illness, to be released into the wild.
A similar tactic has already been used on mosquitoes as part of trials to cut the spread of malaria and dengue fever.
The approach involves using CRISPR/Cas9, which works like a pair of DNA scissors that is normally injected to edit genes.
But now a team at the University of Nevada have found a way around it, by removing the maternal organs that make the wax without rendering eggs unviable.
They were, therefore, able to inject tick eggs, and the gene-editing tool was able to alter DNA in two places.
Results, published in the journal iScience, showed it worked in roughly one in seven cases.
Another method – which involved directly injecting CRISPR/Cas9 into the mothers – was slightly less successful. But the team said the world-first results proved it was possible to genetically edit ticks, and not by just sticking to one method.
Professor Jason Rasgon, an epidemiologist at Penn State University and developer of the technology, said: ‘Ticks are a formidable foe to public health.
‘The (two gene-editing) methods can be used to develop new control methods for disease and also to further understand the biology of ticks.’
It causes a round rash and can trigger flu-like symptoms.
Some people develop symptoms, including tiredness, aches and a loss of energy, that can last for years.
Around 900 Lyme disease cases are reported in the UK every year but the true toll is thought to be in the region of 3,000. Figures are up to 30 times higher in the US.
Dr Monika Gulia-Nuss, co-author of the study, said: ‘Despite their capacity to acquire and pass on an array of debilitating pathogens, research on ticks has lagged behind other arthropod vectors, such as mosquitoes, largely because of challenges in applying available genetic and molecular tools.
‘Previously, no lab has demonstrated genome modification is possible in ticks. Some considered this too technically difficult to accomplish.
‘This is the first study to demonstrate that genetic transformation in ticks is possible by not only one, but two different methods.’
Other tick-borne diseases include babesiosis, which infects and destroys red blood cells and tick-borne encephalitis virus, which attacks the central nervous system.
Both trigger flu-like symptoms, but the immunocompromised can have more severe illness and die.
Ticks can also transmit bacteria to wildlife and domestic animals.
Experts warn climate change is allowing tickets to spread to new areas, putting more people and animals at risk of infection.