Science for You: Using genomics to stick it to the tick


Ixodes scapularis. Photo by Pixabay.

3/1/2017 |

Armed with barbed mouthparts and sophisticated spit, ticks (Ixodes scapularis) employ strategies that have served them for millions of years — stealthily hitching onto a host, slicing
through its skin to bloodfeed and secrete saliva potentially spiked with pathogens.

But despite ticks’ ability to transmit a mindboggling variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause debilitating and sometimes deadly illnesses, tick research has lagged far behind that of other vectors, such as mosquitoes.

Cate Hill

Catherine Hill. Photo by Vincent Walter.

Purdue University entomologist Catherine Hill is changing that. In 2016, she led an  international team of nearly 100 scientists to produce seven papers on tick genetics, including the complete genome sequence of the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), the species that
transmits Lyme disease. The publications are the culmination of a decade-long effort
to equip scientists with desperately needed tools to advance the study of ticks and tickborne

“The genome provides a foundation for a whole new era in tick research,” says Hill, principal investigator of the genome team, professor of medical entomology and Showalter Faculty Scholar. “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.”

Writer: Natalie van Hoose,