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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Eminent Scholar Sonenshine Adds to Landmark Study of Tick Genome

By Tom Robinson

Old Dominion University's Daniel Sonenshine, professor emeritus and Eminent Scholar in the Department of Biological Sciences, is a major contributor to research that identifies, for the first time, the genome of the tick species responsible for Lyme disease.

The study was published Feb. 9 in the journal Nature Communications. Led by Catherine Hill of Purdue University, the team of researchers sequenced the genome of the deer tick, or blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), identifying 24,000 genes involved in traits that enable the tick to spread disease.

The new genetic information can help scientists understand how ticks transmit pathogens and develop new ways to control ticks through a variety of methods.

Among arthropods, ticks transmit the most parasites and disease to humans and animals through feeding lesions. They bite into the skin of their hosts, embed their mouthparts and gorge on blood while regurgitating infected saliva.

"Tick saliva contains a repertoire of cement compounds that binds the tick to the skin, as well as anticoagulants, molecules that disrupt the host's immune system and prevent the human or animal from feeling the tick bite," Sonenshine said.

A recognized international expert on ticks and tick-borne diseases, Sonenshine contributed to many of the technical features of the Nature Communications article.

He focuses especially on the tick's reproductive processes, the regulatory molecules in the tick's central nervous system and elements of its sensory system.

Genomes from other insects have been sequenced, but never before from a tick. Sonenshine said the research may help scientists disrupt genes essential to the tick's survival and its ability to transmit infectious disease.

Lyme disease is not fatal but left untreated can become permanently debilitating with physical complications such as facial paralysis, fatigue and joint pain.

The decade-long project involved 93 authors from 46 institutions. Funding was provided in part by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

About 300,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with tick-related disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nature Communications earlier published a companion article on this research by Sonenshine, his former graduate student Noble Egekwu and other authors. Their study demonstrated major genetic differences between different tick species and offers new targets for disrupting tick-borne disease transmission.