Ticks, small eight-legged arachnids related to spiders and scorpions, are no friends to humans and animals, wild and domestic. But now, gene editing holds out the possibility of better control of the eight-legged pests For starters it may help to virtually eliminate Lyme Disease.
The tiny blood suckers attach themselves to hosts and can spread many diseases. In the US alone the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists a whopping 14 tick borne diseases that can spread to humans and animals. Beyond well known diseases such as Tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease ticks spread such lesser known diseases as anaplasmosis and babesosis. Anaplasmosis is a flu-like condition that rarely kills victims. Babesosis is a blood-destroying conditions that can also prove fatal. Far more common are tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease. Tick borne illnesses can be treated, usually with antibiotics, but all five listed can be fatal.
But now researchers at the University of Nevada, in a paper published in the journal iScience, may have found a way to relieve the destruction. Up until now conventional wisdom was that ticks could not have their genes altered. Their eggs are covered in a thick protective wax. The scientists found a way to remove the wax without rendering the eggs unviable. They also found a way to directly edit tick DNA. The DNA can be edited to prevent the ticks from carrying the bacteria that causes the disease. The results were successful one out of seven times, proving the technique has a long way to go. But the fact that there are two methods points to the possibility of releasing gene-edited ticks into the wild and thus cutting down the incidence of tick borne diseases.
The method is a cousin of earlier successful attempts to eradicate screw worm flies, which we reported on recently. Australia is having trouble with a number of invasive species and is considering biological and genetic warfare. Screw worms were eradicated in the United States because scientists developed a way to sterilize males with radiation and release them by the billions, eliminating the population.
Ticks are not going to go without a fight, however. A recent news report spotlighted a tick that lived for 27 years and didn’t eat for eight years. Females in the study were able to store viable sperm for four years after the last male in the group died. The hardy beasts surviving descendants are under study. Meanwhile, nature has its own answer to the tick problem: Predators: A suprisingly long list of animals feasts on ticks, including some spiders, many other insects, ducks, crows and other birds and mammals including mice, rats and squirrels.