The Microbiome of Ehrlichia-Infected and Uninfected Lone Star Ticks (Amblyomma americanum)

PLoS One. 2016 Jan 11;11(1):e0146651. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0146651. eCollection 2016.


The Lone Star tick, Amblyomma americanum, transmits several bacterial pathogens including species of Anaplasma and Ehrlichia. Amblyomma americanum also hosts a number of non-pathogenic bacterial endosymbionts. Recent studies of other arthropod and insect vectors have documented that commensal microflora can influence transmission of vector-borne pathogens; however, little is known about tick microbiomes and their possible influence on tick-borne diseases. Our objective was to compare bacterial communities associated with A. americanum, comparing Anaplasma/Ehrlichia -infected and uninfected ticks. Field-collected questing specimens (n = 50) were used in the analyses, of which 17 were identified as Anaplasma/Ehrlichia infected based on PCR amplification and sequencing of groEL genes. Bacterial communities from each specimen were characterized using Illumina sequencing of 16S rRNA gene amplicon libraries. There was a broad range in diversity between samples, with inverse Simpson's Diversity indices ranging from 1.28-89.5. There were no statistical differences in the overall microbial community structure between PCR diagnosed Anaplasma/Ehrlichia-positive and negative ticks, but there were differences based on collection method (P < 0.05), collection site (P < 0.05), and sex (P < 0.1) suggesting that environmental factors may structure A. americanum microbiomes. Interestingly, there was not always agreement between Illumina sequencing and PCR diagnostics: Ehrlichia was identified in 16S rRNA gene libraries from three PCR-negative specimens; conversely, Ehrlichia was not found in libraries of six PCR-positive ticks. Illumina sequencing also helped identify co-infections, for example, one specimen had both Ehrlichia and Anaplasma. Other taxa of interest in these specimens included Coxiella, Borrelia, and Rickettsia. Identification of bacterial community differences between specimens of a single tick species from a single geographical site indicates that intra-species differences in microbiomes were not due solely to pathogen presence/absence, but may be also driven by vector life history factors, including environment, life stage, population structure, and host choice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anaplasma*
  • Animals
  • DNA, Bacterial / analysis
  • Ecosystem
  • Ehrlichia*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Microbiota*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • Species Specificity
  • Tick-Borne Diseases / microbiology*
  • Ticks / microbiology*


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S

Grant support

Funding for this project came from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, a seed grant from the Center of Excellence UTIA Veterinary Medicine, and USDA Tennessee Hatch Project (TN00433). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.