Ticks Resist Skin Commensals with Immune Factor of Bacterial Origin

Cell. 2020 Dec 10;183(6):1562-1571.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.10.042.


Ticks transmit a diverse array of microbes to vertebrate hosts, including human pathogens, which has led to a human-centric focus in this vector system. Far less is known about pathogens of ticks themselves. Here, we discover that a toxin in blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) horizontally acquired from bacteria-called domesticated amidase effector 2 (dae2)-has evolved to kill mammalian skin microbes with remarkable efficiency. Secreted into the saliva and gut of ticks, Dae2 limits skin-associated staphylococci in ticks while feeding. In contrast, Dae2 has no intrinsic ability to kill Borrelia burgdorferi, the tick-borne Lyme disease bacterial pathogen. These findings suggest ticks resist their own pathogens while tolerating symbionts. Thus, just as tick symbionts can be pathogenic to humans, mammalian commensals can be harmful to ticks. Our study underscores how virulence is context-dependent and bolsters the idea that "pathogen" is a status and not an identity.

Keywords: bacteria; commensal; hematophagy; hydrolase; pathogen; peptidoglycan; symbiont; tick; toxin; vector.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Biocatalysis
  • Cell Wall / metabolism
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / metabolism
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Immunologic Factors / metabolism*
  • Ixodes / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Models, Molecular
  • Peptidoglycan / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Salivary Glands / metabolism
  • Skin / microbiology*
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis / physiology
  • Structural Homology, Protein
  • Substrate Specificity
  • Symbiosis*
  • Up-Regulation


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Immunologic Factors
  • Peptidoglycan