Re-engineering the White Footed Mouse to Prevent Lyme Disease

While ticks have received most of the blame for Lyme disease, it's not really their fault. The true culprit is the white footed mouse. White footed mice are the primary reservoir for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease (B. Burgdorferi). Ticks that feed on the mice become infected. Then when they latch onto their next meal, the infected ticks infect the host. If you want to get rid of Lyme disease, one idea would be to get rid of the mice. Another would be to change them. Changing the mice is what Kevin Esvelt, the head of the "sculpting evolution" group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working on. He's using recently developed gene-editing technology to rewrite white-footed mouse DNA to make them immune to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. To do this, he's vaccinating mice with a Lyme vaccine that works for dogs and mice (but not humans) and then sequencing the DNA to find the protective antibodies created by the vaccinations. He can then plant the genes that create those antibodies in white footed mouse eggs so that the mice are immune to Lyme disease at birth. Even better, they spread this immunity to infected ticks that might bite them. No more infected mice means no more infected ticks and no more infected people. To test his solution, Esvelt and his team would breed immune mice and apply for permission to release them on an uninhabited island off the coast of Massachusetts. Esvelt estimated that it would take at least a year to see results.

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