Abstract Background Ixodes ricinus ticks vector pathogens that cause serious health concerns. Like in other arthropods, the microbiome may affect the tick’s biology, with consequences for pathogen transmission. Here, we explored the bacterial communities of I. ricinus across its developmental stages and six geographic locations by the 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing, combined with quantification of the bacterial load. Results A wide range of bacterial loads was found. Accurate quantification of low microbial biomass samples permitted comparisons to high biomass samples, despite the presence of contaminating DNA. The bacterial communities of ticks were associated with geographical location rather than life stage, and differences in Rickettsia abundance determined this association. Subsequently, we explored the geographical distribution of four vertically transmitted symbionts identified in the microbiome analysis. For that, we screened 16,555 nymphs from 19 forest sites for R. helvetica, Rickettsiella spp., Midichloria mitochondrii, and Spiroplasma ixodetis. Also, the infection rates and distributions of these symbionts were compared to the horizontally transmitted pathogens Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, Anaplasma phagocytophilum, and Neoehrlichia mikurensis. The infection rates of all vertically transmitted symbionts differed between the study sites, and none of the symbionts was present in all tested ticks suggesting a facultative association with I. ricinus. The proportions in which symbionts occurred in populations of I. ricinus were highly variable, but geographically close study sites expressed similar proportions. These patterns were in contrast to what we observed for horizontally transmitted pathogens. Lastly, nearly 12% of tested nymphs were free of any targeted microorganisms, which is in line with the microbiome analyses. Conclusions Our results show that the microbiome of I. ricinus is highly variable, but changes gradually and ticks originating from geographically close forest sites express similar bacterial communities. This suggests that geography-related factors affect the infection rates of vertically transmitted symbionts in I. ricinus. Since some symbionts, such as R. helvetica can cause disease in humans, we propose that public health investigations consider geographical differences in its infection rates.
- tick-borne disease
- Spotted fever rickettsiosis
- Transmission dynamics
- Quantitative microbiome analysis
- low-biomass samples