Ticks taste you

Published June 29 2016

Scientists have sequenced the genome of the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, which is responsible for transmittingLyme disease in humans. U.S. AGRICUTLTURAL RESEARCH SERVICE

Ticks are notorious for spreading bacteria that can cause the potentially debilitating Lyme disease. But scientists have lacked the necessary tools to advance a proper study of the bugs and aid in the development of Lyme disease interventions. According to Cate Hill, professor of entomology at Purdue University, entomologists have been hampered by “a desperate need of molecular tools and resources to help us understand the biology of ticks.”

Recently, Hill was part of a large team of scientists that worked on sequencing the entire tick genome. The team chose Ixodes scapularis, the deer tick, because of its prominent role in human infections. Results from the sequencing project, which represents the first fully sequenced tick genome, were presented in a recent Nature Communications paper.

In the 10 years it took to complete the genome sequencing, scientists uncovered many genes that may help them better understand tick biology. From their genetic analyses, Hill’s team identified processes that appear unique to ticks and could serve as points for targetable interventions. Among these were the function of receptors used by ticks to locate a host.

“Their biology is very different from other blood-feeding arthropods, like mosquitos, and the way that they find a host is very different,” says Hill. “We think that ticks may rely on gustatory, or taste, receptors. They use their taste receptors to smell rather than the more highly evolved smell receptors that mosquitos use.”

Other important genes identified from the analysis correspond to proteins potentially specific to ticks, including a diverse range of salivary proteins and proteins involved in hemoglobin digestion. Scientists will need to validate these proteins in the ticks to understand better their feasibility as targets of intervention strategies.

Bree Yanagisawa Bree Yanagisawa was an intern at ASBMB Today when she wrote this story. She is a Ph.D. candidate in pathobiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter.