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Deer Tick Genome to Be Sequenced

By Cheryl Simon Silver

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A female tick, engorged with blood after feeding, lays eggs in clusters.
The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is funding a project to sequence the genome of the deer tick, which can transmit the pathogens that cause a number of human diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and tularemia.

Some of these diseases, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, are considered potential tools of biological terror by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC). The CDC and others are also concerned about the rising incidence of some tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease.

The researchers will sequence Ixodes scapularis, also known as the deer tick and the black-legged tick. From a public health perspective, this is the most important tick species in the United States.

Stephen Wikel, of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, describes the sequencing effort as “an opportunity to get a grasp on the complexity of all the interactions between the host, the tick, and the pathogens the tick transmits.” Wikel and Catherine Hill, an entomologist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, are co-principal investigators for the project.

“We know very little about the biology of the tick,” Hill says. In particular, she says, researchers are eager for molecular details of the tick’s saliva, which are integral to how pathogens are transmitted to, and accepted by, the host. New genetic information could help researchers identify proteins that suppress the host’s immune response, allowing the tick to stay attached for up to seven days as it completes its blood meal.

This information could also be used, for instance, to devise ways to thwart the tick’s ability to transmit diseases to human hosts, and also to develop vaccines that fortify the host against specific tick-borne pathogens.

The project is part of the agency’s initiative to sequence genomes of a variety of pathogens and disease vectors through its Microbial Sequencing Centers. The centers, at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, will conduct the I. scapularis sequencing work under contract to NIAID.

The NIAID is still developing the scope of the project, but it is expected to be complete in one to two years. The cost is unknown. The sequencing will take place at The Broad Institute, on the MIT campus.

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