Each year, about 300,000 people in the U.S. contract Lyme disease, an inflammatory condition marked by headache, rash, fever and chills. Although the disease can be treated using antibiotics, it can cause permanent damage to the nervous system, joints and the heart if left untreated.
Findings of a new study, however, have unveiled the genetic secrets of tick species that are known to spread Lyme disease.
The creature transmits Lyme disease when it creates a feeding wound in its host's skin, where it regurgitate infected saliva as it feeds on blood. Ticks also transmit an array of pathogens that can cause diseases and even death in animals and humans.
The research could pave way for new and improved methods that can help control these bloodsucking creatures to prevent them from transmitting diseases.
For the study published in the journal Nature Communications on Feb. 9, entomologist Catherine Hill, from Purdue University, and colleagues sequenced the genome of the deer tick or blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) allowing them to identify more than 24,000 genes involved in traits that make the arachnid a successful parasite and an excellent carrier of pathogens.
The study, for instance, revealed that the ticks' saliva contains pain inhibitors, antimicrobials, anticoagulants, cements and immune suppressors, which all allow the tick to feed on its host without it getting detected.
"Tick saliva contains a repertoire of cement compounds that binds the tick to the skin, as well as anti-coagulants, molecules that disrupt the host's immune system and prevent the human or animal from feeling the tick bite," said Daniel Sonenshine, an expert on tick-borne diseases from the Old Dominion University.
The researchers also found that about 20 percent of the ticks' genes are unique without any equivalent in mosquitoes or humans and this could provide researchers with information on how to come up with methods that can effectively control ticks.
"The genome provides a foundation for a whole new era in tick research," Hill said. "Now that we've cracked the tick's code, we can begin to design strategies to control ticks, to understand how they transmit disease and to interfere with that process."