Genetically engineered mice could fight Lyme disease

The rodents could help Nantucket become Lyme-free.

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REUTERS/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Handout via Reuters
REUTERS/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Handout via Reuters

Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary biologist at MIT, has conjured up an interesting way to combat Lyme disease. Instead of dealing with ticks that carry the pathogen, his method involves genetically engineering mice (using CRISPR) to become immune to the illness. See, deer ticks originally get the pathogen from small mammals such as white-footed mice. By creating rodents that are immune to the disease, scientists can prevent it from spreading to deer and to humans. According to The New York Times, Esvelt has recently presented his solution to the residents of Nantucket, Massachusetts, which has a Lyme disease problem.

Malcolm MacNab, Nantucket's Board of Health chairman, told NYT that nearly 40 percent of the island's residents had contracted the illness. Authorities originally wanted to cull the island's deer population, but they were met with opposition. The Nantucket locals who attended the presentation seem to have found his solution quite interesting. "I'm the first person to say if you go tinker with Mother Nature, we're going to break it," an herbalist said during the forum. "But you know what? Even I want to see where you go with this."

Before Nantucket gets Lyme-immune mice, Esvelt has to unleash thousands of genetically modified rodents on an uninhabited island to test things out. If the number of infected ticks shows a drastic decline after two years, then Nantucket could be next on the list. That won't happen anytime soon, though: Esvelt believes the project could take up to 10 years to complete, since it requires a huge sum of money and various permissions from regulators.

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