Bloodsucking Ticks Make Cement to Attach to Your Skin

The disease-carrying parasites' natural glue could also hold a key to healing us.

Published 20 Jan 2018, 10:54 GMT
Native to the United States, the deer tick (pictured) is a vector for several diseases that ...

Native to the United States, the deer tick (pictured) is a vector for several diseases that afflict humans, including Lyme.

Photograph by Juniors Bildarchiv, Alamy

Bloodsucking parasites that can carry deadly diseases create their own cement to glue themselves to our bodies, a new study says.

Hard ticks—a family of 700 species that includes the one most likely to bite humans in Britain, the Sheep tick, (Ixodes ricinus) and the Lyme-spreading deer tick found in the U.S. —use pincer-like appendages and mouths to attach to a host's skin. But sometimes this grip isn't strong enough for the arachnid to hold on and feed while the host moves.

Sylvia Nürnberger and colleagues discovered hard ticks have an extra tool to glom onto their hosts' skin—a kind of glue made of proteins in their saliva. 

"Not all species have it and not all species have it in the same amount," says Nürnberger, a researcher at the Department of Orthopaedics and Trauma Surgery at the Medical University of Vienna.

The cement discovery could actually benefit humans, she adds, as its properties could be repurposed into a medical adhesive.

Nothing to Spit At

For the study, the scientists reviewed all existing scientific research on tick saliva, which gave them an expansive view of this previously underreported cement substance.

Tick saliva is complex, containing properties that suppress the immune system of the tick's host to keep them unaware of the intrusion by also suppressing pain and itchiness, according to the study, published in November 2017 in Biological Reviews

"In a way, they play with the immune systems of the host," Nürnberger says.

The new study is "a remarkably detailed review of quite an obscure thing," notes Tony Goldberg, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine.

All blood-sucking organisms, not only ticks but leeches and mosquitoes, must "run a gauntlet of defenses by the animal it's feeding on," he notes.

He should know: Goldberg once discovered a new species of tick stuck in his nose after visiting Uganda several years ago.

"I can tell you that thing had some powerful glue," he says.

Tick Paradox

Properties in tick spit also lower the host's defenses against pathogens like Lyme disease, he adds.

"It's a paradox. One of the functions of this [cement] is that it's antimicrobial, so the ticks don't [cause] an infection which would keep them from feeding," Goldberg says.

"Yet there are an awful lot of horrible tickborne diseases that have latched onto this system and are transmitted to us in the saliva." 

Watch: Ticks That Fed on Dinosaurs Found Trapped in Amber
Ticks might be a common sight on dogs, but they also feasted on some now-extinct animals—dinosaurs. Scientists discovered a dinosaur feather encased in pieces of Cretaceous-era amber, with a tick tangled up in the plumage. It's the first direct evidence that ticks afflicted dinosaurs and primitive birds. One of the ticks was engorged with blood when it died, but the chances of extracting dino DNA are extremely low.

Ticks' technique for removing themselves from skin is less clear, but Nürnberger says the arachnids may detach themselves by moving their mouthparts around and retracting their pincers. They may also use their saliva to dissolve the cement.

What Hurts Us Could Make Us Stronger

As fascinating as tick spit is, Nürnberger and colleagues weren't just studying it for fun.

They are conducting ongoing studies on how to recreate properties from the cement that could be made into medical adhesives or sealants. These substances could help heal human injuries and broken bones, as well as glue implants to the body.

Scientists have already developed biological adhesives inspired by barnacles, mussels, and sea urchins, but she says tick cement may be more promising.

"The animal already uses this substance to glue to human tissue," she says. "So we think it could be very compatible and very good in terms of bonding strength."

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