Lyme disease is on the rise in rural America. There has been a 357% increase in the prevalence of Lyme disease in rural areas between 2007 and 2021, along with a 65% growth of infections in urban areas, according to FAIR Health, a nonprofit that studies health care costs and coverage.
Summer is prime time for rural infections. “In June and July, claim lines with Lyme disease diagnoses were more common in rural than urban areas. But from November to April, claim lines with Lyme disease diagnoses occurred more often in urban than rural areas,” the FAIR Health study finds.
As we’ve reported, Lyme disease is “most common along the East Coast and in parts of the Upper Midwest, particularly in smaller, fragmented patches of forest.” But the area where the disease is found is growing, as climate change creates more and more conducive habitats for ticks across the United States.
Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease is transmitted by tick bites and induces fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes, as well as a rash in some patients (though not all). Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics. It can be difficult to diagnose, but the sooner it is found the better, as early treatment is simpler, and left untreated, the “infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.
Unfortunately, the rate of Lyme disease infection is expected to increase due to a hotter climate across the United States. “Because warmer average temperatures can mean longer warm seasons, earlier spring seasons, shorter and milder winters, and hotter summers, conditions might become more hospitable for many carriers of vector-borne diseases,” the CDC says. Vector-borne diseases are spread through the bites of insects and other arthropods, and Lyme disease is the most common such disease in the United States, the CDC says.
Biotech can stop Lyme disease at the source
There are a variety of ways that biotech is working to eliminate Lyme disease. One solution builds off of a tried-and-true standby: simple bug spray. We are all aware of insect repellents like industrial-strength DEET, which, while effective, have a myriad of unpleasant and harmful side effects, from peeling the logo off of your water bottle to skin rashes and irritation—not to mention the smell.
But biotech may have found a better solution. As we have reported, nootkatone is a recently FDA approved ingredient “found naturally in grapefruit skin and Alaska yellow cedar trees” that can “repel and kill ticks, mosquitoes, and other biting insects” and is being developed by Evolva, a member of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). Not only does nootkatone smell better, it is also safe if ingested, unlike other insect repellents, The New York Times reports.
The biotech industry is also using one of its more powerful tools to tackle the issue as well: gene-editing. “A new protocol that allows gene editing at the embryo stage in ticks, previously thought to be impossible,” is in development, according to the University of Nebraska.
Researchers said they were able to edit the genome of the black-legged tick with CRISPR-Cas9 technology using two methods: embryo injection and Receptor-Mediated Ovary Transduction of Cargo (ReMOT Control), according to their publication in iScience Journal. The research is aimed at controlling and limiting tick (and similar insect) populations and therefore reducing the spread of Lyme disease.
In another approach involving gene editing, scientists are looking to edit the genes of certain mice that have immunity to Lyme disease so that they can pass on the immunity to their young, as we’ve reported. Researchers hope that increasing the population of immune mice could reduce the spread of the disease.
Biotech counters the climate change driving infections
Ultimately, in order to curb the increase of infections from conditions like Lyme disease, real steps have to be taken to reduce the carbon emissions that are leading to hotter temperatures. Luckily, biotech is on this case as well.
As outlined in BIO’s 2021 “Biotech Solutions for Climate Change” report, the biotech sector is focusing on a variety of initiatives, such as advanced biofuels, agricultural biological (including carbon capture), renewables, gene-editing solutions, and much, much more.
One example, biologicals used in carbon capture, is one of the most exciting innovations in biotech today. “Carbon that is sequestered as below-ground biomass can remain in that state so long as the surrounding soil is not disrupted,” according to the report. “A variety of biotechnologies have been developed that either capture and sequester or recycle atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
These innovations are diverse in development, effective in carbon capture, and affordable in practice—and are just one of the many ways that the agricultural sector is working with biotech to make carbon emissions a thing of the past.