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Lyme Disease Likely Millions Of Years Old

Ticks and bacteria linked to present-day Borrelia, the cause of Lyme disease, are found in ancient amber.

A tick trapped in ancient amber discovered in the Dominican Republic.

George Poinar Jr./Oregon State University

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If the Companion Animal Parasite Council had been around 15 million years ago, its annual forecast may have been the same as today's: a high risk of tick-borne Lyme disease.

Oregon State University reported today that researchers in the College of Science looked closely at fossilized amber to discover ticks and spirochete-like cells that resemble Borrelia, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in dogs, people and other mammals. Borrelia are so prevalent in modern-day life that 1 in every 130 U.S. dogs was infected in 2013, according to a Banfield Pet Hospital study.

The Oregon State findings, published in the journal Historical Biology, arose from Dominican Republic amber that dates to 15 million to 20 million years ago.

"Ticks and the bacteria they carry are very opportunistic," said paleoentomologist George Poinar Jr., MS, Ph.D., a professor emeritus in the department of integrative biology. "They are very efficient at maintaining populations of microbes in their tissues and can infect mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals."

Ticks outweigh mosquitoes as vectors of disease, Poinar said.

"They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors," he said. "It's likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease."

Lyme disease remained unidentified until about 40 years ago, and how it spreads was first explained in 1981, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Tick-borne bacteria and Lyme disease likely attacked humans from the very beginning, Poinar said. He used the Tyrolean iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier in the Italian Alps, as an example.

"Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease," Poinar said. "He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess."

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