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Tick lab at UMaine has new line of defense against ticks

Thanks to $6.2 million in federal funding, researchers will have more tools to protect and educate the public.

ORONO, Maine — While more than a foot of snow rests on the ground in most places, ticks are probably not top of mind right. But deer ticks, which carry Lyme and other diseases, can survive under that snow and can start to bite as early as March. 

Thanks to $6.2 million in federal funding, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick Lab will have more tools to protect and educate the public, and it couldn't come at a better time. 

Incidence of Lyme Disease was up in 2022 at a little more than 2,600 cases, more than a thousand cases compared to 2021. 

"Managing ticks is such a difficult proposition," lab manager Griffin Dill said.

Dill said climate change is allowing tick populations to increase and move farther west and north in Maine.

Warming winters means ticks can quest longer and emerge earlier in the spring. Dills said $2 million will go to researching these very weather patterns, which could help reduce the numbers. 

"Does it present any opportunities, where we can leverage some of this extreme weather to target vulnerabilities in their life cycle," Griffin added.

Another $2.5 million is slated for tracking species of ticks that are emerging in Maine, including the Lone Star tick, which is linked to a lifetime allergic condition known as Alpha-gal syndrome. It causes food allergies to red meat such as beef, pork, and other mammal products. The lab hopes to hire more researchers including students, to collect and study tick samples. 

"The Lone Star tick that is sometimes being found here in the state of Maine, but we haven't found established populations," Griffin explained.

More than $1.6 million will be dedicated to educating 4-H students and school children, especially in rural areas. The lab hopes there will be a hands-on learning opportunity for kids, teaching them how to identify ticks and protect themselves against Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.

"They can collect ticks and collect data and understand how to analyze that data, test the ticks for them, and can have an understanding about the pathogen prevalence even around their school grounds," Griffin said.

The funding is expected to cover five years of research and educating the public about ticks and the disease they carry.

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