The blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, is the primary vector of the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi in North America. Though the tick is found across the eastern United States, Lyme disease is endemic to the northeast and upper midwest and rare or absent in the southern portion of the vector’s range. In an effort to better understand the tick microbiome from diverse geographic and climatic regions, we analysed the bacterial community of 115 I. scapularis adults collected from vegetation in Texas and Massachusetts, representing extreme ends of the vector’s range, by massively parallel sequencing of the 16S V4 rRNA gene. In addition, 7 female I. scapularis collected from dogs in Texas were included in the study.
Male I. scapularis ticks had a more diverse bacterial microbiome in comparison to the female ticks. Rickettsia spp. dominated the microbiomes of field-collected female I. scapularis from both regions, as well as half of the males from Texas. In addition, the male and female ticks captured from Massachusetts contained high proportions of the pathogens Anaplasma and Borrelia, as well as the arthropod endosymbiont Wolbachia. None of these were found in libraries generated from ticks collected in Texas. Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter and Mycobacterium were significantly differently abundant ( p < 0.05) between the male ticks from Massachusetts and Texas. Anaplasma and Borrelia were found in 15 and 63% of the 62 Massachusetts ticks, respectively, with a co-infection rate of 11%. Female ticks collected from Texas dogs were particularly diverse, and contained several genera including Rickettsia, Pseudomonas, Bradyrhizobium, Sediminibacterium, and Ralstonia.
Our results indicate that the bacterial microbiomes of I. scapularis ticks vary by sex and geography, with significantly more diversity in male microbiomes compared to females. We found that sex plays a larger role than geography in shaping the composition/diversity of the I. scapularis microbiome, but that geography affects what additional taxa are represented (beyond Rickettsia) and whether pathogens are found. Furthermore, recent feeding may have a role in shaping the tick microbiome, as evident from a more complex bacterial community in female ticks from dogs compared to the wild-caught questing females. These findings may provide further insight into the differences in the ability of the ticks to acquire, maintain and transmit pathogens. Future studies on possible causes and consequences of these differences will shed additional light on tick microbiome biology and vector competence.