r. Stephen K. Wikel
pulled a little gauze-topped glass jar from a warm, damp
incubator in his laboratory, and, with the heat from his
palm and a puff of exhaled breath, roused the tiny
blood-sucking creatures inside.
"These are the beasts," he said.
Bristly brown dots, each the size of a poppy seed, began
to mill across the gauze, excited by the heat and gust of
carbon dioxide that signaled the presence of a possible meal
ticket on the other side.
One dot was immobilized on some cellophane tape and
placed under a microscope, revealing just a few of the
myriad tools that enable Ixodes scapularis, the deer tick
and the main carrier of Lyme disease, to detect, climb
aboard and surreptitiously dine on a host.
It is this diminutive eight-legged arachnid, a cousin of
spiders, that has taken the carefree pleasure out of a
summertime walk in the woods for millions of people in the
Northeast. Other Ixodes species are spreading Lyme disease
on the West Coast and in parts of Europe.
The visible features of the tick are impressive enough,
including forearm hooks that snag fur or fabric on a passing
target, a pair of cutting mouth parts -- like scissor blades
with the sharp edge outward -- and a serrated tube that
serves both as an anchor and a drinking straw. Ticks are the
"Inspector Gadget" of parasites.
But it is the tick's invisible armamentarium, dozens of
elaborate chemical weapons in its saliva, that have become
the prime focus of Dr. Wikel, an entomologist at the
University of Connecticut Health Center, which sits on a
hilltop near Hartford overlooking wooded suburban yards that
are prime tick habitat.
He and other experts in tick biology have found that the
seemingly primitive parasites use an array of sophisticated
chemical strategies to subvert a host's immune defenses, to
prevent blood from clotting, and to muffle any itch or pain
that might elicit scratching that could dislodge a tick and
ruin a vital blood meal.
Ticks, which spend their lives stealthily avoiding
detection, are beginning to give up some of their secrets.
A central goal of the scientists is to develop a vaccine
from some of the molecules pumped into a host when a tick
bites, thereby turning its own weapons against it.
A vaccine that deters the Ixodes tick, Dr. Wikel and
other tick experts say, could prove more useful than the
existing vaccine for Lyme disease, which only attacks the
bacteria transmitted by the tick, not the tick itself.
Recent research has shown that deer ticks carry at least
two other diseases besides Lyme -- human granulocytic
ehrlichiosis and babesiosis. So an "anti-tick"
vaccine, Dr. Wikel said, could essentially be "a
Some preliminary work has shown that the strategy can be
effective, and one anti-tick vaccine is being used against a
different species that infests cattle in Australia --
sometimes with up to 20,000 ticks on a single host.
But it will be years before scientists clearly identify
the structure and purpose of the soup of molecules in tick
spit, Dr. Wikel said, and years more before there is a
marketable human vaccine.
In the meantime, other scientists are finding that tick
saliva is fertile territory for seeking potential new drugs,
especially for controlling clotting and inflammation.
"Ticks know everything we know and don't know about
pharmacology," said Dr. Jose M. C. Ribeiro, a tick
expert at the parasitology laboratory of the National
Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Dr. Ribeiro, Dr. Wikel and others studying ticks have
practical ends in mind, but almost all of these scientists
say they were drawn to these persistent pests mainly by
their complex, often astonishing, abilities.
"Biologically, a tick is a box inside a box inside a
box," Dr. Ribeiro said.
Another tick expert, Dr. James E. Keirans, recalled his
wonderment 30 years ago when he was based in western Montana
and hiked paths leading into the foothills of the Rockies in
the spring, when adult dog ticks emerge.
There, when you crouch down with the light behind you, he
said, "you can see the ticks up on the grass blades,
just sitting there attached by their third pair of legs. You
can take off your hat and pass a shadow over them and see 60
or 70 ticks at once moving their legs."
There are about 840 tick species, divided into two
families, those with leathery bodies like the dog and deer
tick -- which have three life stages and take only one big,
momentous meal during each stage -- and others with soft
bodies, which behave more like fleas, feeding repeatedly and
Ticks feed on just about every kind of back-boned animal
except fish, said Dr. Keirans, the curator of the National
Tick Collection, which is owned by the Smithsonian
Institution but is located at Georgia Southern University in
He rattled off a few examples, including ticks that
hopscotch continents on migrating seabirds, specialized
ticks that may soon become extinct as the rhinoceroses on
which they feed dwindle, even ticks that only feed on the
Galapagos tortoise. The largest is a tick that feeds only on
sloths in the American tropics. When fully engorged, he
said, it is the size of a Ping-Pong ball.
There is some debate, but many biologists say that ticks
probably evolved more than 300 million years ago, possibly
feeding on dinosaurs and amphibians.
"For them, the mass extinction of dinosaurs just
meant a menu change," said Dr. Ribeiro. A new target,
the mammal, had a new feature in its blood, platelets, which
aid clotting and would have thrown a roadblock at ticks.
But, Dr. Ribeiro said, evolution carried on and ticks -- in
the endless spy-versus-spy game of life -- developed ways to
keep the blood flowing.
"They have a very ancient wisdom about how to take
blood," he said.
The hard-bodied ticks have been the focus of most
research in North America because they are the predominant
carrier here of diseases that affect people and their
livestock and pets. (Wildlife, of course, is not immune.
Biologists have documented the presence in northern forests
of "ghost moose" -- moose that have as many as
400,000 ticks feeding on them and that lose all their hair
as they rub hopelessly against trees.)
In its life cycle and habits, the deer tick is typical of
many species, said Dr. Daniel E. Sonenshine, a biology
professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and
author of the two-volume "Biology of Ticks"
(Oxford University Press, 1991 and 1993). A tick's prime
goal is to find an appropriate host, climb aboard, find the
ideal spot to latch on, and to dine on red blood cells, the
source of the globin molecules needed to molt and mature
and, in the end, for females to make and lay eggs.
In each stage of life -- larva, nymph and adult -- the
process of finding and feeding on a host is almost exactly
the same. Only the targets change. The larvae almost always
feed on mice, while the adult deer tick, which is big enough
that it tends to be detected by a person and brushed or
plucked off, targets mainly deer.
For deer ticks, the nymph stage -- the stage milling
around in Dr. Wikel's jar -- is the main transmitter of
disease to people, with its peak of activity coming from
late spring to late summer.
A nymph's day generally starts in a moist, protected
place, typically buried in leaf litter and only rarely out
in the middle of a mowed lawn. Without adequate moisture it
can quickly dry out and die.
As the hours pass, it begins to "quest," in the
parlance of tick biology, climbing instinctively in the
opposite direction of gravity, usually up a blade of grass
or a twig, and generally no more than a foot or two off the
It sits poised, waiting. In this posture, resumed daily,
the tick is like a land mine, primed and ready and patient
as can be, with weeks or even months passing before a
potential target comes along. Most, Dr. Keirans said, never
find a meal.
But enough do. They detect a rustling vibration and a
whiff of carbon dioxide and maybe a slight sensation of
warmth. A shadow passes, triggering nerves attuned to
changes in light. Holding onto the perch with that third
pair of legs, they wave the rest of their appendages.
Especially active are the forearms, which contain a sensory
organ that is exquisitely tuned to sense chemical changes.
The legs are tipped with sharp hooks. The lucky ones snag
But, Dr. Sonenshine said, for the tick, the job has only
It begins to explore the host, he said, generally moving
up against gravity until it either reaches an obstruction --
the elastic of underpants or a tight shirt collar -- or
until it finds an ideal feeding spot, a place exuding sweat
and warmth, indicating an ample blood supply.
The sensory tools that led it to this place are now
disregarded and it relies on its palps, paired arms next to
its cutting mouth parts, to select an ideal dining spot.
Once there, ticks do not bite like a horsefly or use a
syringe like a mosquito. Unlike these insects, which eat and
run, ticks have taken an evolutionary path requiring them to
settle in for the long haul.
Ticks dig a well.
Using their serrated mouth parts, they excavate a pool
beneath the host's skin from which they draw sustenance
using the hypostome, a straw-like tube that resembles a
drywall anchor and holds the animal almost as effectively.
A tough, rubbery cement is released, helping hold the
tick in place.
The meal unfolds over up to five or even seven days,
which is why people are generally not apt to acquire Lyme
disease from a tick bite if the offender is removed within a
couple of days of attachment, researchers say.
The tick only sips tentatively at first, while steadily
pumping into the wound saliva that carries a variety of
ingredients that help it stay attached, avoid detection,
suppress the immune system and keep blood flowing.
The result is a pool brimming with just what the tick
wants, red blood cells. The white blood cells that would
normally flood a wound have been tricked to stay away.
"Ticks are very finicky, like one of those brats who
will only eat cookies," said Dr. Sonenshine. "The
tick has this choice of all these wonderful things -- a big
cafeteria of cells, muscle, other tissue. But it says no
thanks. Just give me red blood cells."
Finally, there comes what tick biologists call "the
big sip," a binge of feeding reserved until the end so
there is the least risk that the now rapidly growing
parasite will be detected.
As it ingests blood, it has to expel water, and it does
so through its saliva, accelerating the passage of any
hitchhiking Lyme bacteria into the host.
Researchers stress that old methods for removing ticks --
like touching it with a burned match or daubing with alcohol
-- probably cause it to expel even more spit into the wound.
The best approach, they say, is to use steady pressure with
small tweezers to draw the tick away from the skin until it
As the meal comes to a close, the tick grows sometimes a
hundredfold in weight before finally dropping from the host
and crawling into leaf litter and -- in the case of adult
females -- laying thousands of eggs and starting the cycle
all over again.
Dr. Ribeiro has spent more than a decade hunting in tick
saliva for all the hidden molecules used during feeding. A
few have been identified by him or other researchers:
•Apyrase, an enzyme that destroys substances released
by injured cells that would normally cause platelets and
white blood cells to accumulate.
•Prostaglandin E2 , which suppresses some immune
defenses and dilates capillaries, increasing blood flow.
•Kininase, an enzyme that blocks several molecules that
create the itch sensation and swelling when skin is injured.
And there are probably dozens more, Dr. Ribeiro, Dr.
Wikel and other researchers said.
Increasingly, it appears that the infections transmitted
by ticks take advantage of the conditions created by this
chemical cocktail, Dr. Wikel said.
All the more reason to find a way to vaccinate potential
hosts so that the body -- instead of being tricked by the
influx of weapons -- recognizes one of them and mounts a
counterattack, he said.
Dr. Wikel, who once enlisted a small army of students to
dissect salivary glands out of 10,000 ticks, said that
genetic sequencing techniques were accelerating the
Even so, he said, "We probably have a lifetime of
work ahead of us to look at all these products, develop the
proteins and use them in vaccination trials."
2000 The New York Times Company