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Gene Editing Breakthrough in Ticks to Help Combat Lyme Disease

By Nicole Tenly

A multi-institutional research team that includes a University of Maryland scientist has uncovered a new method that allows for gene editing in ticks at the embryo stage—a process previously thought impossible. The results, published Feb. 15 in iScience, could diminish the ability of ticks to serve as vectors for disease and pathogen transmission, decreasing the public health threat of tick-borne diseases like Lyme.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the research collaboration was led by Monika Gulia-Nuss and Andrew Nuss at the University of Nevada, Reno, and involved Robert Harrell at UMD’s Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) and Jason Rasgon at The Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers successfully carried out targeted gene disruption in ticks through two CRISPR gene-editing methods: embryo injection and Receptor-Mediated Ovary Transduction of Cargo (ReMOT Control), a less labor-intensive method of gene-editing first developed in insects by the Rasgon lab. Harrell, an expert in insect genetic modification, led the effort to find appropriate injection conditions for tick embryos.

“The delivery of genetic modification components into tick embryos is just the first step. The next steps are to further develop the genetic tools for really answering biologically significant questions about host-pathogen interaction,” said Harrell, director of the Insect Transformation Facility, an international resource for the genetic modification of insects located at UMD’s IBBR. “The technique developed here will allow us to probe the interaction between the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and the tick host.”

While Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease, there are at least 20 different infections that are transmitted by ticks in the U.S. Approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme each year, and the number of areas where ticks are found are increasing.

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