Francisella tularensis and other bacteria in hares and ticks in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany)
Tularemia is a zoonotic disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. The disease can be transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals such as the European brown hare (Lepus europaeus) and ticks as vectors. The aim of this study was to isolate F. tularensis from ticks and hares in North Rhine-Westphalia using cysteine heart agar to determine their genetic relatedness and to identify other bacteria that grow on this medium. 848 European brown hares and 1556 questing ticks (all Ixodes ricinus) from forests were tested using cultivation and MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry or partial 16S rRNA gene sequencing. The majority of F. tularensis isolates from hares (n = 24; 96%) and genomic F. tularensis DNA recovered from ticks belonged to the basal genetic clade IV and subclade B.18. These isolates were sensitive to erythromycin and were assigned to biovar I. Only a single strain isolated from a hare was assigned to basal clade I (B.12/B.35). All isolates were sensitive to tetracycline, doxycycline, streptomycin, gentamicin, chloramphenicol, and ciprofloxacin. Only 4 tick pools were positive for F. tularensis and cultivation was not successful in any of the pools. Most of the other isolated bacteria belonged to the order Bacillales with 36 Staphylococcus isolates, 9 Bacillus isolates and 8 Paenibacillus isolates. Prominent members of Enterobacterales were represented by different genera like Pantoea, Erwinia, Raoultella etc. Several of the bacterial species were soil or plant-associated, but some of the bacterial species were found in I. ricinus for the first time. Our results showed that F. tularensis was detected only in few ticks of an endemic area, but ticks were also infected by several other bacteria with zoonotic potential. Therefore, a wider spectrum of pathogens should be considered if a patient was bitten by a tick.