Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Fossilized tick-borne diseases

José de la Fuente
Ciudad Real, Spain

Fossil tick in Burmese amber (Myanmar, Burma, Cretaceous). Piece and images of the author. 

Ticks and tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and alpha-gal syndrome are a growing burden for human health worldwide.1-3 Alpha-gal syndrome is an emerging allergy associated with tick bites and mammalian meat consumption. It is a potentially life-threatening immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated reaction to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal), which is present in mammalian meat and derived products.4 Symptoms vary between individuals, but the condition is likely underdiagnosed, and currently there is no treatment.3-7

Hominids evolved through a series of catastrophic selection events. These events resulted in a drastic reduction of the population, and survivors lost the capacity to produce certain biomolecules. While survivors and their offspring maintain an evolutionary advantage and better immunity, for some it may result in autoimmune and allergic conditions such as tick-induced alpha-gal syndrome.8,9

Fossil ticks are difficult to find, but amber inclusions support their presence.10-12 One fossil Amblyomma tick identified in Dominican amber was infected with a spirochete-like pathogen.13 Ancient Egyptians and Greeks recognized the risks associated with ticks. “Tick fever” was recorded in an Egyptian papyrus dated to 1550 BC and was noted in Homer’s Odyssey, written around 850 BC.11,14,15

The fossil record and archaeological findings may be used to further study tick-borne diseases. In the case of alpha-gal syndrome, evidence suggests that early humans were eating the meat and marrow of large animals some 2.6 million years ago.16 Research into the fossil record may one day shed light on whether our early ancestors who were exposed to tick bites also experienced conditions such as alpha-gal syndrome.


  1. de la Fuente J. “Translational biotechnology for the control of ticks and tick-borne diseases.”Ticks Tick Borne Dis 12(5):101738,2021.
  2. de la Fuente J, Estrada-Peña A, Gortázar C, et al. “Citizen science on lyme borreliosis in spain reveals disease-associated risk factors and control interventions.”Vector Borne Zoonotic Dis 10.1089/vbz.2023.0016,2023. https://doi.org/10.1089/vbz.2023.0016
  3. Thompson JM, Carpenter A, Kersh GJ, et al. “Geographic distribution of suspected alpha-gal syndrome cases – United States, January 2017-December 2022.”MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 72(30):815-820, 2023.
  4. Van Nunen SA, O’Connor KS, Clarke LR, Boyle RX, Fernando SL. “An association between tick bite reactions and red meat allergy in humans.” Med J Aust 190(9):510-511, 2009.
  5. Vaz-Rodrigues R, Mazuecos L, de la Fuente J. “Current and future strategies for the diagnosis and treatment of the Alpha-Gal Syndrome (AGS).” J Asthma Allergy 15:957-970, 2022.
  6. Macdougall JD, Thomas KO, Iweala OI. “The meat of the matter: understanding and managing Alpha-Gal Syndrome.” Immunotargets Ther 11:37-54, 2022.
  7. de la Fuente J. (2023). “The alpha-Gal syndrome is underdiagnosed.” Actas dermo-sifiliograficas S0001-7310(23)00637-3, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ad.2023.07.018
  8. Galili U. “Evolution in primates by ‘catastrophic-selection,’ interplay between enveloped virus epidemics, mutated genes of enzymes synthesizing carbohydrate antigens, and natural anti-carbohydrate antibodies.”Am J Phys Anthropol 168(2):352-363, 2019.
  9. de la Fuente J, Contreras M. “Vaccinomics: a future avenue for vaccine development against emerging pathogens.”Expert Rev Vaccines 20(12):1561-1569, 2021.
  10. de la Fuente J. “The fossil record and the origin of ticks (Acari: Parasitiformes: Ixodida).” Exp Appl Acarol 29:331-344, 2003.
  11. de la Fuente J, Estrada-Peña A, Cabezas-Cruz A, Brey R. “Flying ticks: anciently evolved associations that constitute a risk of infectious disease spread.”Parasit Vectors 8:538, 2015.
  12. Chitimia-Dobler L, Dunlop JA, Pfeffer T, Würzinger F, Handschuh S, Mans BJ. “Hard ticks in Burmese amber with Australasian affinities.”Parasitology 150:157-171, 2023.
  13. Poinar Jr. G. “Spirochete-like cells in a Dominican amberAmbylommatick (Arachnida: Ixodidae).” Historical Biology 27:565-570. 2015.
  14. Hoogstraal H. Bibliography of Ticks and Tickborne Diseases: From Homer (about 800 B.C.) to 31 December 1969. Vol. 2. United States Naval Medical Research Unit Number Three (NAMRU-3), Cairo, Egypt, U.A.R., 1970.
  15. Gorirossi-Bourdeau F. “A documentation in stone of Acarina in the Roman Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon, about 150 AD.” Bull Ann Soc Ent Belgique 131:3-15, 1995.
  16. Pobiner B. “Evidence for Meat-Eating by Early Humans.” Nature Education Knowledge4(6):1, 2013.

JOSE DE LA FUENTE, PhD, professor, has worked on molecular biology and biotechnology, systems biology of host-vector-pathogen molecular interactions and quantum vaccinomics, and translation of this basic information into development of effective vaccines and other interventions for the control of infectious diseases affecting human and animal health worldwide. 

Summer 2023



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