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April 2020 (Vol. 5 Issue 2)

Lyme disease starts with a mouse, not the tick
About the author: 
Bryan Hubbard

Lyme disease starts with a mouse, not the tick image

Debilitating Lyme disease is caused by a tick bite, as everyone knows—but now researchers have discovered how the tick gets to be a carrier in the first place, opening the door to new ways of preventing its spread.

It all starts with the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus)—and not the tick. The mouse, which lives in forests and wetlands, harbors the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, and it's the ticks that feed off the mouse that pass it on to people.

Scientists from the University of California at Irvine have sequenced the genome of the white-footed mouse, and this gives them the roadmap to start developing preventative programs, such as an environmentally-safe vaccination.

Most approaches have concentrated on somehow controlling the movement of the tick "but they have been difficult to put in practice," said Alan Barbour, one of the researchers.

The researchers also want to understand why the mouse doesn't get sick from the bacteria it carries, and this could provide clues about how people could combat the infection. In addition to Lyme bacteria, the mice also carry a form of viral encephalitis, and illnesses like malaria and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The research team is making the white-footed mouse's genome sequence publicly available so other researchers can work with it.

The rate of Lyme disease increased 17 percent in the US in the year to 2017, with 42,743 cases being reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that cases have tripled since the late 1990s, partly down to the urbanization of rural areas and forests, and fears the actual increase is far greater, as most cases are either never diagnosed or reported.


(Source: Science Advances, 2019; 5: eaaw6441)

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