Scott Bauer, USDA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Scott Bauer, USDA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ticks' DNA Data May Someday Help Us Control Them

Scott Bauer, USDA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Scott Bauer, USDA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When ancient military strategist Sun Tzu counseled his readers to “know thy enemy,” he was almost certainly not talking about ticks. But for many Americans, especially those with Lyme disease, ticks are the enemy. And now we know a whole lot more about them, because scientists have sequenced the tick’s genome. The results were published today in the journal Nature Communications. 

Like bedbugs, whose DNA also got a closer look recently, deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) continue to spread across the United States. A recent survey found them in nearly half of U.S. counties—a huge increase from the last tick inventory. But it’s not just the ticks that are spreading. Where they go, disease follows: Lyme disease, yes, but also human granulocytic anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and the deadly Powassan virus.

In other words, understanding the little bloodsuckers has become pretty important to a lot of people. The tick genome project was a massive undertaking, involving 93 scientists from 46 institutions. 

"Genomic resources for the tick were desperately needed," lead author Catherine Hill said in a press release. They were also difficult to come by. The tick’s DNA would not give up its secrets easily. The tick’s genome is smaller than those of humans, but just as complex, and peppered with redundant sections that made it harder to parse.

But even these tricks were no match for an army of determined scientists. And once the genome was decoded, it revealed all kinds of useful tidbits. The researchers found proteins in the tick’s salivary glands that help transmit disease-causing bacteria to its host. 

They also found hormones that affect tick growth and sexual maturity. Researchers say that manipulating those hormones via a tick “birth-control pill” may be a viable form of tick control in the future. 

"The genome provides a foundation for a whole new era in tick research," Hill said in the press release. "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."

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3 Simple Ways to Stay Tick-Free This Summer
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As the weather gets warmer, you no doubt want to don your favorite shorts and get out in the sunshine. Unfortunately, shorts season coincides with tick season, and we're in the midst of what one expert calls a "tick explosion."

Tick expert Thomas Mather of the University of Rhode Island told Boston 25 News that warm weather is going to lead to a particularly bad summer for ticks. The blood-sucking bugs aren't just annoying—they spread Lyme disease and several other serious illnesses, including a pathogen that can cause a sudden allergy to meat.

There are several precautions you should take to stay safe from ticks and the risks they carry during the high season, which usually lasts from April to September, though some ticks can stay active year-round as long as it's above freezing. While ticks usually live in grassy or wooded areas, you should be careful even if you live in the city, because pathogen-spreading ticks can still be hiding in urban parks.

Tick prevention begins when you get dressed. Wear long sleeves and pants, and if you're in a tick-prone area, tuck your pants into your socks to better protect your legs. Opt for light colored clothing, because it's easier to see bugs against a light color versus a dark one.

You'll want to invest in insect repellent, too, for both you and your pets. The CDC recommends treating your clothing (and tents, and any outdoor gear) with permethrin, an insecticide that you can apply to fabric that will last through several washes. Permethrin not only repels ticks, but kills them if they do manage to get onto your clothes, and you can buy socks and other clothing that come pre-treated with it. Insect repellents with DEET are also effective against ticks.

Since ticks are most likely to make their way onto your feet and ankles, make sure to treat your shoes and socks. And since your dog is more likely to get a tick than you are, make sure to get Fido a tick collar or some other kind of tick medication.

Most of all, you just need to stay vigilant. When you come inside from the outdoors, check your body for any ticks that may have latched on. Ticks can be as small as a poppyseed, so make sure to look closely, or ask someone else to check hard-to-see places like your back. And since they like moist areas, don’t forget to give your armpits and groin a careful look. If you do catch a tick, remove it as soon as you can with a pair of tweezers.

Best of luck out there.

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Watch a "Trained" Spider Named Kim Leap Six Times Its Body Length
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Jumping spiders are cold-blooded assassins, masters of disguise, and just maybe a little quicker on the uptake than we're really OK with. For a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers from the University of Manchester "trained" one special jumping spider named Kim to leap in their experiment, all with the goal of demystifying the mechanics behind jumping spiders' abilities.

Kim was one of four regal jumping spiders (Phiddipus regius) the researchers brought into the lab for a close examination of how their bodies move as they leap and land. A jumping spider can clear up to six times its body length, which ranges from 0.04 to 0.98 inches—about the equivalent of a three-story building, relative to the spider's body size. For comparison, the farthest a human can jump is roughly 1.5 body lengths.

The researchers created an experiment chamber with platforms at varying distances from one another, then tried to coax the spiders into it. Only Kim would even enter. The researchers moved Kim between the take-off and landing platforms until she "became familiar with the challenge," they write. No tasty bait or stimulation (like blowing air) was used to motivate her. Still, her eventual familiarity with the task potentially implies some sort of learning. So even though she wasn't following orders, she figured out how to navigate the experiment's challenges—an impressive achievement for a spider about the size of an aspirin.

Using ultra-high-speed and high-resolution cameras, the researchers then filmed Kim's jumps to study how the arachnid moved her body when navigating a short jump equal to two body lengths; a longer jump equal to six lengths; and jumps between platforms placed at different heights. They found that Kim cleared shorter distances quickly and at low angles, thus sharpening her accuracy and boosting her chances of catching any prey that might be waiting at her destination. For longer jumps, she was more conservative with her energy, but her accuracy suffered.

Jumping spiders are excellent hunters, thanks in part to their precision ambushing skills. They also boast super-powered senses that help them locate their next meal before making their attack. Fine hairs on their legs allow them to "hear" subtle vibrations, and their eight eyes are sharp enough to track laser pointer lights.

This family of spiders also uses a hydraulic pressure system to move their legs. It helps jumping spiders extend their limbs, and some researchers have theorized that it also allows them to jump such great distances. According to the new study, that's not the case: "Our results suggest that whilst Kim can move her legs hydraulically, she does not need the additional power from hydraulics to achieve her extraordinary jumping performance," study co-author Bill Crowther said in a press statement. That means the jumps in the video below are made possible by Kim's muscle power alone.

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