A Francisella tularensis Chitinase Contributes to Bacterial Persistence and Replication in Two Major U.S. Tick Vectors

Pathogens. 2020 Dec 10;9(12):1037. doi: 10.3390/pathogens9121037.


Nearly 100 years after the first report of tick-borne tularemia, questions remain about the tick vector(s) that pose the greatest risk for transmitting Francisella tularensis (Ft), the causative agent of tularemia. Additionally, few studies have identified genes/proteins required for Ft to infect, persist, and replicate in ticks. To answer questions about vector competence and Ft transmission by ticks, we infected Dermacentor variabilis (Dv),Amblyomma americanum (Aa), and Haemaphysalis longicornis (Hl; invasive species from Asia) ticks with Ft, finding that although Aa ticks initially become infected with 1 order of magnitude higher Ft, Ft replicated more robustly in Dv ticks, and did not persist in Hl ticks. In transmission studies, both Dv and Aa ticks efficiently transmitted Ft to naïve mice, causing disease in 57% and 46% of mice, respectively. Of four putative Ft chitinases, FTL1793 is the most conserved among Francisella sp. We generated a ΔFTL1793 mutant and found that ΔFTL1793 was deficient for infection, persistence, and replication in ticks. Recombinant FTL1793 exhibited chitinase activity in vitro, suggesting that FTL1793 may provide an alternative energy source for Ft in ticks. Taken together, Dv ticks appear to pose a greater risk for harboring and transmitting tularemia and FTL1793 plays a major role in promoting tick infections by Ft.

Keywords: Amblyomma americanum; Dermacentor variabilis; Francisella tularensis; Haemaphysalis longicornis; tick-borne disease.