Monday, March 10, 2014

Video microscopy of ticks acquiring the Lyme disease spirochete from mice

The bite of an infected Ixodes hard tick transmits the Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, to humans.  Ticks acquire B. burgdorferi by feeding on reservoir hosts colonized with the spirochete.  Reservoir hosts include small mammals such as the white-footed mouse, the main reservoir of B. burgdorferi in the northeastern United States.

A study that just came out in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine is accompanied by videos of Borrelia burgdorferi being transmitted between mouse and tick.1  The authors prepared the mice by infecting them with B. burgdorferi genetically modified to express green fluorescent protein.  After waiting two weeks to allow the spirochetes to disseminate, they placed one hungry Ixodes scapularis tick onto an ear of each infected mouse.

Figure 1 from Bockenstedt et al., 20141.  A feeding tick (arrow) attached to the ear of a mouse.  The tick is engorged with blood.

Nymphal ticks feed for an average of 2.5 to 8 days.  The meal starts with the tick inserting its barbed feeding apparatus into the skin.  (For a close-up view of this process, head over to the blog Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science.)  The tick releases saliva through the feeding canal into the skin.  Tick saliva contains substances that damage host tissue surrounding the feeding apparatus and pharmacologic agents that inhibit clotting and engage the immune system. Intervals of salivation alternate with ingestion of blood, tissue fluid, and lymph that pool at the feeding site.2

The authors examined the feeding site by two photon intravital microscopy to observe what was happening to the spirochetes. They saw spirochetes in the dermis moving towards the feeding apparatus and disappearing as they presumably got sucked into the feeding canal.  One such spirochete is digitally colored in red in the video below, which was shot 48 hours into the blood meal.  (One hour of video footage was compressed into 30 seconds.)  The feeding apparatus is the green structure near the top of the viewing field.  Previous studies have suggested that ticks acquire B. burgdorferi from skin, not from blood.3  The videos from this study provide support for this notion, according to the authors.

Are the spirochetes mere passengers that get caught in the flow of fluid being drawn into the feeding canal, or are they active participants?  The authors argue for an active role for the spirochetes:
Spirochete movement is unlikely to be due simply to the mechanical flux of tissue fluid as the tick feeds because close examination of individual spirochetes that move toward the hypostome reveals both the oscillating movements that we observe in the absence of tick feeding as well as directional translocation.


1.  Bockenstedt LK, Gonzalez D, Mao J, Li M, Belperron AA, & Haberman A (2014). What ticks do under your skin: two-photon intravital imaging of Ixodes scapularis feeding in the presence of the Lyme disease spirochete. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 87 (1), 3-13 PMID: 24600332

2.   Anderson JF, & Magnarelli LA (2008). Biology of ticks. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, 22 (2) PMID: 18452797

3.  Nakayama Y, & Spielman A (1989). Ingestion of Lyme disease spirochetes by ticks feeding on infected hosts. The Journal of infectious diseases, 160 (1), 166-7 PMID: 2732513