Distribution of Rickettsia spp. in Ticks from Northwestern and Southwestern Provinces, Republic of Korea

Article information

Korean J Parasitol. 2019;57(2):161-166
Publication date (electronic) : 2019 April 30
doi : https://doi.org/10.3347/kjp.2019.57.2.161
1Viral and Rickettsial Diseases Department, Naval Medical Research Center, Silver Spring, MD 20910-7500, USA
2Department of Microbiology, Konkuk University School of Medicine, Seoul 05029, Korea
3Research Institute of Medical Science, Konkuk University School of Medicine, Seoul 05029, Korea
4Force Health Protection and Preventive Medicine, Medical Department Activity-Korea/65th Medical Brigade, Unit 15281, APO AP 96271-5281, USA
*Corresponding author (wjjang@kku.ac.kr)

These authors contributed equally to this work.

Received 2018 August 11; Revised 2018 December 4; Accepted 2018 December 23.


This study was done to characterize distribution of Rickettsia spp. in ticks in the northwestern and southwestern provinces in the Republic of Korea. A total of 2,814 ticks were collected between May and September 2009. After pooling, 284 tick DNA samples were screened for a gene of Rickettsia-specific 17-kDa protein using nested PCR (nPCR), and produced 88 nPCR positive samples. Of these positives, 75% contained 190-kDa outer membrane protein gene (ompA), 50% 120-kDa outer membrane protein gene (ompB), and 64.7% gene D (sca4). The nPCR products of ompA, ompB, and sca4 genes revealed close relatedness to Rickettsia japonica, R. heilongjiangensis, and R. monacensis. Most Rickettsia species were detected in Haemaphysalis longicornis. This tick was found a dominant vector of rickettsiae in the study regions in the Republic of Korea.


Spotted fever group rickettsiae (SFGR) are obligatory intracellular bacteria commonly found in arthropods such as ticks. Some of the SFGR cause rickettsioses after arthropods transmit them to animals and humans. Common clinical symptoms of SFG rickettsioses are fever, headache, and rash [1]. Currently, SFGR comprise more than 30 species classified into multiple genogroups including: Rickettsia japonica - R. heilongjiangensis; R. massiliae including R. montanensis; R. helvetica including R. tamurae and R. monacensis; and R. akari [2]. Members of the R. japonica - R. heilongjiangensis genogroup have been detected in Japan and the Far East [3]. Specifically, the first clinical case of R. japonica was known in Japan in 1984. It was reported as Japanese spotted fever [3,4]. Since then, it has been detected in Japan, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand [58].

R. heilongjiangensis was first isolated from Dysmicoccus sylvarum ticks in Heilongjiang Province of China in 1983. It belongs to R. japonica subgroup of SFGR [10]. Rickettsioses caused by R. heilongjiangensis have appeared in China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Japan [912].

In the Republic of Korea, a variety of SFGR including R. japonica, R. conorii, R. akari, R. australis, and R. monacensis have been reported over 15 years ago [1318]. R. japonica was first detected from Haemaphysalis spp. ticks in 2003 and human sera in 2004 while R. monacensis was first detected from Haemaphysalis spp. ticks in 2009 [13,14,18]. Additionally, various unidentified Rickettsia spp. were detected in ticks from 5 provinces (including Jeolla-do) during 2011–2013 [19].

Recently, various Rickettsia spp. in other countries have been reported. Nine species or subspecies of tick-borne rickettsiae have been identified in China in the past 30 years [21]. Guo et al. [22] first reported on the existence of R. raoultii in H. erinacei from wild marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna) in China in 2014. It may be assumed that there is a need to examine geographical features (i.g. China-Kazakhstan border) in the identification of various Rickettsia species [21]. Also, since tick-borne disease can be prevalent throughout the country due to climate change, it is important to investigate seasonal occurrence and status of ticks to predict the potential of transovarial transmission [22]. Therefore, the objective of this study was to identify and characterize rickettsiae in ticks collected at different geographical regions in the Republic of Korea.


Collecting and identifying ticks

All ticks were collected using tick dragging in the northwestern province (4 regions in Incheon-si, including Gangwha-do (37°44′10.5″N/126°31′47.5″E and 37°45′02.9″N/126°25′26.9″E), Samsung-dong (37°43′47.9″N/126°29′36.6″E), Gilsang-myeon (37°37′31.1″N/126°29′34.1″E), and Bureun-myeon (37°37′04.6″N/126°28′35.3″E)) and 2 southwestern provinces (3 regions in Jeolla-do: Muan (34°51′06.9″N/126°25′03.8″E), Haenam (34°35.68.6″N/126°38.45.3″E and 34°34.01.8″N/ 126°38.16.1″E), and Gochang (36°35′67.6″N/126°33′55.7″E); and 3 regions in Chungcheong-do: Seosan (36°44′26.0″N/ 126°34′05.0″E), Chungju (37°01′43.3′ ′N/127°50′50.0″E), and Jecheon (37°13′39.5″N/128°05′11.5″E) in Republic of Korea from May to September of 2009 (Fig. 1). Ticks were identified and their developmental stages such as larva, nymph, adult male, and adult female were determined under a stereomicroscope. Pooled tick samples were transferred to 2 ml microcentrifuge screw-cap tubes and stored at −70°C.

Fig. 1

Map of the tick sampling sites. Ticks were collected in the northwestern (Incheon-si) and southwestern (Chungcheong-do, Jeolla-do) provinces of Korea.

DNA extraction

Pooled tick samples were washed with 70% ethanol and rinsed with distilled water. Total DNAs were extracted from these samples using G spin total DNA extraction kit (iNtRON, Gyeonggi, Korea) according to the manufacture’s introductions. DNA samples were stored at −20°C until use for DNA amplification.

nPCR to detect rickettsial agents

First, we performed nPCR screening to select positive DNA samples using specific primers for 17-kDa gene: R17K31F (GCTCTTGCAGCTTCTATGTTACA) and Rr2608R (CATTGTCCGTCAGGTTGGCG). The reaction mixture was prepared by adding 2 μl DNA extract and 8 pmole of each primer into a tube of AccuPower® PCR premix (Bioneer Corp., Daejeon, Korea) composed of 1U Taq DNA polymerase, 250 μM dNTP, 50 mM Tris-HCl (pH 8.3), 40 mM KCl, and 1.5 mM MgCl2. After adjusting the final volume to 20 μl with distilled water, and PCR reaction was performed on a VeritiTM 96-well Thermal Cycler (Applied Biosystems, Carlsbad, California, USA).

Amplification of partial ompA/B and sca4

To amplify partial ompA, ompB, and sca4 genes from SFG Rickettsia positive DNA samples, nPCR was performed. Primers are listed in Table 1.

Oligonucleotide primers used for detection of Rickettsia ompA, ompB and sca4

Sequencing analysis

To identify Rickettsia species by sequencing, we used ompA primers (Table 1). Sequencing was performed by Genotech Co. Ltd. (Daejeon, Korea). To acquire partial ompA nucleotide sequences, all samples were sequenced in duplicates. Sequence analyses were performed with MegAlign software (DNAStar, Madison, Wisconsin, USA).


Tick collection

A total of 2,814 ticks were collected from 3 provinces in the Republic of Korea in May 2009, including 1,056 H. flava, 1,725 H. longicornis, 32 I. nipponensis, and one A. testudinarium. These ticks consisted of 1,994 (70.8%) larvae, 791 (28.1%) nymphs, 16 (0.5%) adult males, and 13 (0.4%) adult females. Dominant species were H. longicornis (61.3%) followed by H. flava (37.5%) and I. nipponensis (Table 2).

Summary on tick species, stage and 17-kDa positive nPCR collected from 3 projected regions

Amplification and sequencing for rickettsial agent identifications

nPCR screening of 284 tick pools identified 88 (30.9%) positive samples using rickettsial 17-kDa antigen gene-specific primers. These nPCR positive samples were used for nPCR amplification of ompA, ompB, and sca4 genes. nPCR results showed that 66 (75.0%), 44 (50.0%), and 57 (64.7%) samples were positive for ompA, ompB, and sca4, respectively (Table 3).

Summary on nPCR results of ticks tested for 3 rickettsial target genes, ompA, ompB and sca4

Subsequently, we randomly selected 30 nPCR positive samples (10 from northwestern and 20 from southwestern province) for ompA gene to performed sequencing analysis.

Sequences of ompA from 2 H. flava pool samples collected from Jeolla-do shared 97.8–99.1% similarities with those of R. heilongjiangensis. Most of 27 H. longicornis pools shared 97.8–98.8% sequence similarities with R. heilongjiangensis while 1 H. longicornis tick pool shared 99.9% sequence similarity with R. monacensis (Fig. 2). R. monacensis was first detected in I. nipponensis collected from Jeolla-do, Gyeonggi-do, and Gangwon-do [22,23]. Interestingly, R. monacensis was first detected in H. longicornis collected from Incheon metropolitan city of a northwestern province.

Fig. 2

Phylogenic tree representing phylogenetic relationships between partial ompA sequence of various rickettsial strains and 625 bp of ompA product amplified from 30 selected DNA samples. The phylogenetic tree was constructed using MegAlign software and Bootstrap analysis was performed with 1,000 replicates.


First cases of Far East spotted fever (FESF) caused by R. heilongjiangensis have been reported in Russia and China [24]. Rickettsiae from ticks collected in Korea in 2003 [13] showed high sequence similarities with R. japonica YH (GenBank accession number: AP011533). R. japonica was detected in Korean human sera in 2004 and 2005 [14,16].

Although this study was limited to a short period of 5 months, most tick-related pathogens such as tick-borne pathogens found in other Korean studies [19,26,27] were commonly detected in Southern provinces such as Jeolla-do and Chungcheong-do that were also included in the present study.

To obtain more data on the distribution of rickettsiae, we investigated species of Rickettsia from ticks in 2 provinces of Republic of Korea. In particular, the number of ticks collected from Incheon metropolitan city was more than that collected from other regions and H. longicornis predominated. Its number collected from Incheon metropolitan city was twice of that collected from Jeolla-do and 9 times of that collected from Chungcheong-do.

Incheon metropolitan city is located in the northwestern part of Seoul. It is the third largest city after Seoul and Busan in Republic of Korea. Interestingly, the 8 areas of Incheon-si where ticks were collected were mostly flat areas not exceeding 100 m in height with a humid subtropical climate [28,29]. This environment is a suitable place for the survival of tick vectors and the area with low grass height may be advantageous for human and vector contact. This shows the potential that human infections can be caused by ticks in urban areas. It also reminds us that we need to continuously monitor geographical changes of vector distribution and disease incidence.

In summary, we used nucleic acids and found that rickettsial agents from Ixodid ticks collected from northwestern and southwestern provinces of the Republic of Korea were closely related to R. heilongjiangensis, R. japonica, and R. monacensis.


Yeon-Joo Choi and Ju Jiang contributed equally. Funding for portions of this work was provided by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch-Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System (AFHSB-GEIS), Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, nor the US Government.



The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Article information Continued

Fig. 1

Map of the tick sampling sites. Ticks were collected in the northwestern (Incheon-si) and southwestern (Chungcheong-do, Jeolla-do) provinces of Korea.

Fig. 2

Phylogenic tree representing phylogenetic relationships between partial ompA sequence of various rickettsial strains and 625 bp of ompA product amplified from 30 selected DNA samples. The phylogenetic tree was constructed using MegAlign software and Bootstrap analysis was performed with 1,000 replicates.

Table 1

Oligonucleotide primers used for detection of Rickettsia ompA, ompB and sca4

Target gene Primer Nucleotide sequence (5′→3 ′) Product size (bp) PCR condition (°C/sec)

Denaturation Annealing Extension Cycles
ompA 190-70Fb ATGGCGAATATTTCTCCAAAA 645 94 50 72 40
190-3588F AACAGTGAATGTAGGAGCAG 845 94 42 72 40

ompB RompB11F ACCATAGTAGCMAGTTTTGCAG 1,892 94 50 72 40
RompBRm11Fc RCCATAGTRGCCAGTTKTGCAG 1,846 94 50 72 40

sca4 RrD928F ATTTATACACTTGCGGTAACAC 1,758 94 45 72 40

ompA, outer membrane protein A gene; ompB, outer membrane protein B gene, sca4, surface cell antigen gene.


Reverse orientation.


Primers for sequencing.


Specially designed primer for R. monacensis.

Table 2

Summary on tick species, stage and 17-kDa positive nPCR collected from 3 projected regions

Province Species Stage No. of ticks (No. of tested pools) No. of 17-kDa PCR positive (%)
Incheon H. flava Larvaa 654 (24) 0 (0)
Nymphb 25 (6) 2 (8.0)
Adult (male)c 1 (1) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
H. longicornis Larvaa 1,080 (39) 23 (2.1)
Nymphb 12 (7) 4 (33.3)
Adult (male)c 6 (6) 3 (50.0)
Adult (female)c 3 (3) 1 (33.3)
I. nipponensis Larvaa 3 (1) 0 (0)
Nymphb 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (male)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 0 (0) 0 (0)

Chungcheong-do H. flava Larvaa 127 (5) 0 (0)
Nymphb 74 (17) 4 (5.4)
Adult (male)c 2 (2) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
H. longicornis Larvaa 88 (3) 0 (0)
Nymphb 30 (7) 2 (6.7)
Adult (male)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 1 (1) 0 (0)
I. nipponensis Larvaa 12 (1) 1 (8.3)
Nymphb 11 (4) 3 (27.2)
Adult (male)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 0 (0) 0 (0)

Jeolla-do A. testudinarium Larvaa 0 (0) 0 (0)
Nymphb 1 (1) 0 (0)
Adult (male)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
H. flava Larvaa 0 (0) 0 (0)
Nymphb 159 (36) 2 (1.2)
Adult (male)c 7 (7) 1 (14.3)
Adult (female)c 7 (7) 0 (0)
H. longicornis Larvaa 30 (2) 0 (0)
Nymphb 473 (98) 38 (8.0)
Adult (male)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 2 (2) 1 (50.0)
I. nipponensis Larvaa 0 (0) 0 (0)
Nymphb 6 (4) 3 (50.0)
Adult (male)c 0 (0) 0 (0)
Adult (female)c 0 (0) 0 (0)

Total (%) 2,814 (284) 88 (3.1)

1–39 larvae per pool,


1–7 nymphs per pool,


1 adults per pool.

Table 3

Summary on nPCR results of ticks tested for 3 rickettsial target genes, ompA, ompB and sca4

Province Species No. of tested tick pools ompAa (%) ompBa (%) sca4a (%)
 Incheon H. flava 2 0 (0) 1 (50.0) 1 (50.0)
H. longicornis 31 20 (64.5) 11 (35.4) 15 (48.3)
I. nipponensis 0 0 (0) 0 (0) 0 (0)
Subtotal 33 20 (60.6) 12 (36.3) 16 (48.4)
H. flava 4 0 (0) 0 (0) 0 (0)

 Chungcheong-do H. longicornis 2 2 (100.0) 2 (100.0) 2 (100.0)
I. nipponensis 4 2 (50.0) 0 (0) 4 (100.0)
Subtotal 10 4 (40.0) 2 (20.0) 6 (60.0)
 Jeolla-do H. flava 3 3 (100.0) 0 (0) 0 (0)
H. longicornis 39 36 (92.3) 29 (74.3) 32 (82.1)
I. nipponensis 3 3 (100.0) 1 (33.3) 3 (100.0)
Subtotal 45 42 (93.3) 30 (66.6) 35 (77.7)

Total 88 66 (75.0) 44 (50.0) 57 (64.7)

MFIR (Minimum field infection rate)=No. of positive pools/No. of tested tick in pools×100.