Scientists want to take the radical evolutionary step of genetically engineering white-footed mice of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to rid the islands of Lyme disease. The vile bacterial infection causes fatigue, fevers and rashes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, Lyme disease can spread to the joints, nervous system and heart if left undetected. The people living on these bucolic summer retreats are eager to eradicate the scourge given the fact that as many as 40 percent of the population on just Nantucket have Lyme disease.“Here in the Northeast, our natural disaster is Lyme disease,” said Kevin Esvelt, who specializes in evolutionary and ecological engineering at MIT Media Lab.
Almost everyone associates deer with this illness, but transmission starts when an adolescent tick bites a white-footed mouse carrying the Lyme bacteria. If they can eliminate the bacteria from mice then it might solve the problem.
Esvelt’s goal is to do that by tinkering with their genetic code. He and his team want to heritably immunize the local white-footed mice.
Some mice develop immunity to Lyme naturally. However, they do not pass along that immunity to offspring without some assistance from science.
That is where Harvard immunologist Duane Wesemann enters the picture. Once he isolates the genetic code for Lyme immunity, he will be able to edit it into the genome of many more mice.