Tick microbial associations at the crossroad of horizontal and vertical transmission pathways

Krawczyk, Aleksandra Iwona; Röttjers, Sam; Coimbra-Dores, Maria João; Heylen, Dieter; Fonville, Manoj; Takken, Willem; Faust, Karoline; Sprong, Hein


Background: Microbial communities can affect disease risk by interfering with the transmission or maintenance of pathogens in blood-feeding arthropods. Here, we investigated whether bacterial communities vary between Ixodes ricinus nymphs which were or were not infected with horizontally transmitted human pathogens. Methods: Ticks from eight forest sites were tested for the presence of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, Babesia spp., Anaplasma phagocytophilum, and Neoehrlichia mikurensis by quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), and their microbiomes were determined by 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing. Tick bacterial communities clustered poorly by pathogen infection status but better by geography. As a second approach, we analysed variation in tick microorganism community structure (in terms of species co-infection) across space using hierarchical modelling of species communities. For that, we analysed almost 14,000 nymphs, which were tested for the presence of horizontally transmitted pathogens B. burgdorferi s.l., A. phagocytophilum, and N. mikurensis, and the vertically transmitted tick symbionts Rickettsia helvetica, Rickettsiella spp., Spiroplasma ixodetis, and CandidatusMidichloria mitochondrii. Results: With the exception of Rickettsiella spp., all microorganisms had either significant negative (R. helvetica and A. phagocytophilum) or positive (S. ixodetis, N. mikurensis, and B. burgdorferi s.l.) associations with M. mitochondrii. Two tick symbionts, R. helvetica and S. ixodetis, were negatively associated with each other. As expected, both B. burgdorferi s.l. and N. mikurensis had a significant positive association with each other and a negative association with A. phagocytophilum. Although these few specific associations do not appear to have a large effect on the entire microbiome composition, they can still be relevant for tick-borne pathogen dynamics. Conclusions: Based on our results, we propose that M. mitochondrii alters the propensity of ticks to acquire or maintain horizontally acquired pathogens. The underlying mechanisms for some of these remarkable interactions are discussed herein and merit further investigation. Graphical Abstract: [Figure not available: see fulltext.].