Targeting Ticks and Lyme Disease With Gene Editing

February 23, 2022 — We hear a lot about mosquito disasters as they spread malaria, dengue, Zika, and other diseases, but they are certainly not the only tiny disease vectors. Just ask anyone who has dealt with Lyme disease. Ticks have long been a major source of infectious disease, but researchers have paid less attention to them than to mosquitoes. And we know far less about their biology and what makes them tick. But this is starting to change.

Scientists first used the CRISPR form a gene-editing tool that allows you to change the genetic code of black-legged ticks.

The feat was outstanding because researchers have been trying for years to find a way to successfully inject mite embryos. Due to the high internal pressure in the egg, the hard outer shell, and the layer of wax around each embryo that must be removed prior to injection, it was difficult to get inside the embryo to edit its genes. But now scientists have a way to get in there, and they published their findings in the journal iScience.

The researchers were able to edit genes by injecting them into an embryo, as they would with other creatures, but they also came up with a process that was more successful. This involved first removing Genet’s organ – which female ticks use to coat eggs with wax – from the mother ticks and then using two chemicals, benzalkonium chloride, and sodium chloride, to remove the hard outer shell of the eggs and reduce their internal pressure.

This does not mean that it suddenly became easy to introduce eggs. Researchers have yet to find the right time during pregnancy to use CRISPR to edit genes. But their work paid off. Overall, only about 1 in 10 tick embryos survived the injection — about the same as the gene-editing survival rate for insects — and all-female ticks survived.

The new study outlines for other researchers what they need to do to finally be able to modify the tick’s genome, opening the door for further research into understanding these arthropods and what kind of gene editing works best in them. Ultimately, the research could lead to better gene editing, more answers about how ticks survive and transmit disease, and perhaps how to prevent such transmission.

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