What makes ticks tick?

Published: Mar. 5, 2018 at 5:59 PM PST
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Ticks can carry life-threatening illnesses like Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Fever. While we know the diseases react once they hit our blood stream, researchers aren’t certain what happens when the tick gets infected.

Researchers are searching for that kind of information, and with the help of a grant from the National Institutes of Health, it could be the gateway to prevention.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, hand-raised ticks are being coddled. The arachnids are being studied at all different stages from larvae to nymph to adult.

With a National Institutes of Health grant, they hope to discover how illnesses like Lyme disease impact the ticks on a genetic level.

“What do the different genes do in a tick? Why they are so adaptable to different climatic conditions? So is there anything we can do to stop them from traveling throughout the United States?” says Professor Monika Gulia-Nuss with UNR Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Gulia-Nuss says because ticks can live up to three years, they aren't researched much.

"One of the other really interesting model organisms is a mouse. The developmental cycle of a mouse is 45 days, compared to two years for the tick. So that makes it really hard to study especially functional genomics or studying them on the molecular level,” says Professor Gulia-Nuss.

But if they can understand the genetic code of the tick, and what reacts when the bacteria that cause Lyme Disease enter the tick's body, they may be able to prevent Lyme Disease in humans.

Ticks get Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Fever or other infectious disease when they bite infected mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

The tick needs blood at every stage of life. The older the tick gets, the longer it must feed. What researchers don't know is what genetically is going on inside the tick that allows it to carry the disease and later infect people.

Studying ticks beyond a cellular level; on a deeper level, could provide new, more insightful results.

“What happens to the cells after you inject them with a pathogen? But when you take the same approach in the live organism, that story is very different than the cell lines,” says Professor Gulia-Nuss.

The first challenge is developing instrumentation that can extract genetic material from a tick. If the genetic code can be manipulated, Gulia-Nuss says that information will be passed on to others to develop specific insecticides, or even vaccines to prevent tick-borne illnesses.

Researchers say the $407,000 NIH grant should last years.