Retrotransposon-Based Blood Meal Analysis of Nymphal Deer Ticks Demonstrates Spatiotemporal Diversity of Borrelia burgdorferi and Babesia microti Reservoirs

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Deer tick-transmitted Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto (Lyme disease) and Babesia microti (babesiosis) increasingly burden public health across eastern North America. The white-footed mouse is considered the primary host for subadult deer ticks and the most important reservoir host for these and other disease agents. Local transmission is thought to be modulated by less reservoir-competent hosts, such as deer, diverting ticks from feeding on mice. We measured the proportion of mouse-fed or deer-fed host-seeking nymphs from 4 sites during 2 transmission sea-sons by blood meal remnant analysis using a new retrotransposon-based quantitative PCR (qPCR) assay. We then determined the host that was associated with the in-fection status of the tick. During the first year, the proportion of mouse-fed ticks ranged from 17% on mainland sites to 100% on an island, while deer-fed ticks ranged from 4% to 24%. The proportion of ticks feeding on mice and deer was greater from island sites than mainland sites (on average, 92% versus 43%). Mousefed ticks decreased significantly during year 2 in 3 of 4 sites (most were <20%), while deer-fed ticks increased for all sites (75% at one site). Overall, ticks were more likely to be infected when they had fed on mice (odds ratio [OR] of 2.4 and 1.6 for Borrelia and Babesia, respectively) and were less likely to be infected if they had fed on deer (OR, 0.8 and 0.4). We conclude that host utilization by deer ticks is characterized by significant spatiotemporal diversity, which may confound efficacy tests of interventions targeting reservoir hosts. IMPORTANCE White-footed mice are thought to be the most important reservoir host for the deer tick-transmitted pathogens that cause Lyme disease and human babesiosis because they are the primary host for immature ticks. Transmission would be reduced, however, if ticks feed on deer, which are not capable of infecting ticks with either pathogen. By directly measuring whether ticks had fed on either mice or deer using a new quantitative PCR (qPCR) assay to detect remnants of host DNA leftover from the larval blood meal, we demonstrate that host utilization by ticks varies significantly over time and space and that mice often feed fewer ticks than expected. This finding has implications for our understanding of the ecology of these diseases and for the efficacy of control measures.

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Applied and Environmental Microbiology