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Scott Bauer, USDA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ticks' DNA Data May Someday Help Us Control Them

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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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Lucy Stockton/National Trust Images
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This Just In
The Tiny, Pretty Diamond Spider Isn't Extinct After All
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Lucy Stockton/National Trust Images

An elusive spider that was believed to be extinct in Britain has been spotted for the first time in nearly 50 years, according to The Telegraph.

Pretty little Thanatus formicinus—more commonly known as the diamond spider—is just a third of an inch long and gets its name from the thin black diamond on its hairy gray abdomen. The spider typically lives in damp areas with moss and flowering plants, like heather and purple moor grass. But since the arachnid was last spotted in England’s Ashdown Forest in 1969, conservationists assumed that it had fallen victim to habitat loss.

Turns out, the spider wasn’t extinct—it was just laying low for a few decades. While conducting an ecological survey of Clumber Park—an expanse of heath, woods, and parkland in Nottinghamshire—two volunteers with England’s National Trust conservation organization recently spotted the long-lost arachnid.

“The spider ran away from me twice, but with persistence and some luck, I caught it,” said Lucy Stockton, the National Trust volunteer who sighted the arachnid along with companion Trevor Harris.

The duo’s discovery in Clumber Park marks just the fourth time the spider had ever been recorded in the UK, and the only time it's been seen in the north of the country. “We are absolutely delighted that this pretty, little spider has been re-found, we had almost given up hope,” commented Mark Shardlow, the chief executive of Buglife, an English conservation group. “It is a testament to the crucial importance of charities like the National Trust saving and managing heathland habitats.”

[h/t The Telegraph]

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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
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entertainment
The Peppa Pig Episode Kids in Australia Can't See
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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Kids in Australia have reason to be wary of eight-legged creatures. The continent is home to some pretty dangerous spiders, including deadly funnel-web spiders, which have strong enough fangs to bite through a toenail. Australia's spiders have claimed a new victim, though: a few episodes of the animated British show Peppa Pig.

As Slate reports, an episode of the show has been pulled from the broadcast lineup in Australia for urging kids not to be afraid of spiders. The episode, "Mister Skinnylegs," first aired in 2004, and had already been banned from public broadcasting in 2012, but it recently re-ran on Nick Jr. through the Australian cable service Foxtel. Another episode featuring the same spider character, "Spider Web," is also banned in the country.

In "Mister Skinny Legs," Peppa Pig's brother George finds a spider in the sink and becomes its friend. Peppa is scared at first, but her father tells her, "There's no need to be afraid. Spiders are very, very small, and they can't hurt you."

Arguing that Down Under, spiders can, in fact, hurt you, parents complained that the episode was inappropriate for impressionable Australian viewers. After the outcry following the August 25 re-run, Nick Jr. has agreed to pull the episode from rotation in Australia.

While Australia does have some scary spiders, the risk may be a bit overblown. In a recent study, researchers found zero deaths from spider bites in the country between 2000 and 2013. (There was one fatality in 2016, but it was the first in 37 years.) Almost 12,000 people did end up in the hospital with spider bites during those years, though. On the other hand, the same study found that more Australians were killed by horses during that time period than all of the country's venomous creatures combined. Still, it's perhaps best to avoid telling kids to make friends with black widows. Watch the episode below at your own risk.

[h/t Slate]

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