Thursday, July 19, 2012

Micro-Eukaryotic Diversity in The Human Intestine

While we’re currently being flooded by papers on the intestinal microbiome, we still have very few dealing with the intestinal “micro-eukaryome” (forgive me my "badomics", I should have known better after reading this piece by Dr Eisen).

Hamad et al., just published their work on “Molecular Detection of Eukaryotes in a Single Human Stool Sample from Senegal” in PLoS One. They used a panel of 22 broad-specificity eukaryotic primers on genomic DNA extracted directly from faeces, cloned PCR products and did a blast search of the resulting sequences. They found about 18 micro-eukaryotic species in this particular faecal sample, most of which were fungi, and only two of which were “parasites”, namely Blastocystis sp. (subtype not given) and Entamoeba hartmanni, a so-called non-pathogenic amoebic species.They used both culture and culture-independent methods (PCR directly on genomic DNA from faeces) for the detection of intestinal fungi.

The study is interesting for a number of reasons:

1) It is one of the few papers out there on micro-eukaryotic diversity in faecal samples (other ones are listed in the reading list below), and we still know very little about micro-eukaryotes' potential interaction with the host and their ecological niche.

2) Many fungal species were detected by cloning of PCR products obtained by various primer pairs. It is possible that many of these are fungi stemming from the environment and diet, and not actually fungi colonizing the intestinal tract of this person; indeed the primers were able to pick up eukaryotic DNA such as that from tomatoes and common hop, stemming from the person’s diet. This is also one of the draw-backs of studies of fungi in stool samples: Even for mycologists it may prove difficult to determine which fungi are likely to be colonisers rather than fungi in transit due to environmental exposure, including diet. Analysis of consecutive samples from the same individual(s) (similar to the approach by Scanlan and Marchesi (2008)) will assist in identifying which fungi are stable and probable colonisiers. Similar to other studies, the investigators highlight the disparate findings resulting from the use of culture-dependent and culture-independent analyses; culture may be a way of identifying which ones of the many fungi detected by PCR that are actual colonisers.

3) We still don’t know much about what to expect when we take an approach like this. In the present study, multiple primer pairs were put into use, and 11 primer pairs yielded PCR products. The primer pairs amplified products of different lengths (some of them covering the complete SSU rDNA (18S)), and large products can sometimes be difficult to amplify and/or sequence for a variety of reasons; also preferential amplification may be a limiting factor. What would sometimes be useful is an in-silico analysis of the spectrum of organisms covered – at least theoretically - by each set of primers. In the papers I’ve seen so far aiming to display the eukaryotic diversity in human stool, Blastocystis has been a consistent finding, while Dientamoeba fragilis, which, at least in Denmark is almost as prevalent as Blastocystis (in some cohorts even more prevalent) and can be seen in co-infection, has not been reported so far. When you are presented with a list like the one presented by Hamad et al., you are inclined to believe that this list is exhaustive, but I think in-silico analysis data on such broad-specificity primers used for the detection of eukaryotic DNA would help us validate the use of these primers. Another approach to test the applicability of this methodology is to construct samples of DNA from known organisms in different ratios... and then test how the primers and cloning perform. What is also important is the very method of DNA extraction... obviously, our ability to detect DNA from any organism relies on our ability to extract DNA from it.

4) The study of micro-eukaryotes and their roles in health and disease includes first and foremost knowledge about which species and lineages that can be found and which ones that are the most common. Molecular methods are needed to identify the organisms in our intestine, since for instance parasites that look the same (morphological identity) can be genetically diverse with differing abilities to cause disease. We know from studies of micro-eukaryotes in ruminants that for instance some ciliates can be directly beneficial to the host, while others - such as cryptosporidia - are virtually obligate pathogens causing watery diarrhoea. Moreover, some organisms, including micro-eukaryotes, may be extremely difficult to culture even short-term, and also microscopy has limitations.

While we are still searching for virulence genes and other effector proteins in common micro-eukaryotes such as Blastocystis and Dientamoeba fragilis which could potentially cause disease directly, we also need to look for more indirect effects. Although much lower in numbers than our bacteria, (some) micro-eukaryotes may predate on beneficial bacteria to an extent where dysbiosis is reached. "Defaunation" of the intestine is speculated to be associated not only with impaired absorption of nutrients, but also with the development of severe disesases such as colon cancer and if micro-eukaryotes are able to skew our flora, this may have indirect impact on our health; many of our commensal bacteria are essential to some of our vital body functions, - indeed our intestinal flora can be viewed as a separate organ (see previous blog posts).

In the era of "omics" and "ngs" tools, it is interessesting to see a paper on global microbiotic diversity using a "conventional" cloning and sequencing approach in 2012. It may be one of the last papers of its kind?

To sum up: it is clear that a healthy intestine may be populated by a variety of micro-eukaryotes and future studies of the structure and function of the intestinal microbiome including micro-eukaryotes will help us understand their role in health and disease.

Let me end this post by uploading an image depicting "A Tree of Eukaryotes" (including Blastocystis) from an excellent protist blog by a colleague - my rendition here is practically useless, but I hope it might tease you to go and look at it in detail on "Welcome to the Ocelloid" by Psi Wavefunction.

Further reading:

Hamad I, Sokhna C, Raoult D, & Bittar F (2012). Molecular detection of eukaryotes in a single human stool sample from senegal. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22808282

Pandey PK, Siddharth J, Verma P, Bavdekar A, Patole MS, & Shouche YS (2012). Molecular typing of fecal eukaryotic microbiota of human infants and their respective mothers. Journal of biosciences, 37 (2), 221-6 PMID: 22581327

Scanlan PD, & Marchesi JR (2008). Micro-eukaryotic diversity of the human distal gut microbiota: qualitative assessment using culture-dependent and -independent analysis of faeces. The ISME journal, 2 (12), 1183-93 PMID: 18670396

Thursday, July 12, 2012

10,000 views and a Blastocystis Salute!

I've been writing this blog since late March, and today this blog was visited by viewer #10,000. I think that calls for a salute!

And what could be more appropriate than a piece of music attributed to Blastocystis? Please click here and read and listen for yourselves! And by the way: This is not the only orchestral work that has been written with Blastocystis in mind...

(Please note that this blog can now be accessed simply via http://blastocystis[dot]net - thanks for visiting!)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Blastocystis Culture in Jones' Medium

Upon request I have now posted the protocol on one of the simplest media used for Blastocystis culture, Jones' Medium, - please go to the tab (page) "Lab Stuff".

You can read about Blastocystis culture in some of my other blog posts, use the search box or the labels feature.

Please be aware that this is for xenic culture only - i.e. culture in the presence of bacteria. It's quick, inexpensive, very reliable (at least for human samples) and isolates can be kept this way for months/years - all you need is an incubator.

Extracting DNA from cultures and using it for subtyping usually yields excellent results.

I have never tried to cryopreserve (freeze down) Blastocystis using Jones' Medium, but it is possible (at least when Robinson's Medium is used).

More reading:

Stensvold CR, Arendrup MC, Jespersgaard C, Mølbak K, & Nielsen HV (2007). Detecting Blastocystis using parasitologic and DNA-based methods: a comparative study. Diagnostic microbiology and infectious disease, 59 (3), 303-7 PMID: 17913433

And, if you are interested in culture of intestinal protists in general, why not look up

Clark CG, & Diamond LS (2002). Methods for cultivation of luminal parasitic protists of clinical importance. Clinical microbiology reviews, 15 (3), 329-41 PMID: 12097242

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Blastocystis Nutrition

A reader of this blog asked me about the nutritional requirements of Blastocystis and whether I thought the parasite can be eradicated by fasting.

Given my background (I'm not a dietitian for starters), I guess my best way of approaching this is by drawing on my experience from the lab. When we diagnose Blastocystis, we have multiple methods to choose from, some of which are better than others (please look up previous posts here for more information). Short term (i.e. 24-48 h) in-vitro culture at 37 °C in Jones' medium is almost as sensitive as PCR (molecular detection). This means that if viable Blastocystis is present in a faecal sample, then it will most probably "come up" in culture, which means that in a day or two, we will be able to detect those "characteristically non-characteristic" soap bubble structures (the vacuolar stage) by light microscopy of a small portion of the culture - they will be all over the place!

So, what's Jones' medium? Well, Blastocystis can be cultured in a variety of different media, some of which are very primitive. Jones' medium is probably one of the simplest media, and consists mainly of electrolytes, yeast extract (contains nucleic acids) and horse serum (containing lipids). Importantly, we don't even have to add starch to the medium, when we culture Blastocystis xenically (i.e. under non-sterile conditions and this is what we always do when using culture diagnostically). Blastocystis has also been grown in a saline-serum medium, again in the presence of bacteria.

Apart from providing the anaerobic environment required for Blastocystis to thrive, bacteria most probably constitute a significant source of nutrients for the parasite. We can consistently keep strains of Blastocystis in xenic culture for weeks, months, years, observing vigorous growth, and it is clear that the bacteria and the simple medium supply nutrients in abundance. I have never managed to axenise (i.e. eliminate bacteria from) a culture, but others have been successful at times. One of the pioneers in Blastocystis research, Charles H. Zierdt, noted that the axenisation of Blastocystis usually takes weeks/months with a continuous reduction of bacterial numbers and species, until one species, usually a Bacteroides sp., remains; elmination of the last bacterial species may or may not result in axenisation, simply depending on the need for bacterial support. One of our future goals is to characterise the bacterial flora in individuals with and without Blastocystis.

I believe that even during fasting, Blastocystis will have plenty of access to essential nutritional components. It is possible that fasting may impact the intestinal bacterial flora, and if Blastocystis is dependent on a certain bacterial flora, it may be so that the parasite can be "manipulated" by manipulating the intestinal flora.

Useful reading:

Clark CG, & Diamond LS (2002). Methods for cultivation of luminal parasitic protists of clinical importance. Clinical microbiology reviews, 15 (3), 329-41 PMID: 12097242
Zierdt CH (1991). Blastocystis hominis--past and future. Clinical microbiology reviews, 4 (1), 61-79 PMID: 2004348

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Share Your Experience

It is a fact that a lot of people with diarrhoea, IBS and other intestinal symptoms are diagnosed with Blastocystis, and that sometimes drugs are prescibed with the aim to obtain clinical and microbiological improvement. While there is no specific drug against Blastocystis, a lot of different ones (see previous posts) are used in order to try and eradicate the parasite. Since these drugs differ from country to country in terms of availability and since there is no consensus as to which drug(s) to use, it is of great importance that people who have been diagnosed with Blastocystis and who have received treatment share their experience. We need information on what drugs that result in partial or complete alleviation of symptoms (clinical improvement) and that are capable of clearing the parasite from the gut.

Facebook has a forum (Blastocystis sp. (B. hominis and sp.) where there is a very active debate going on just on this. It may be so that you want to share your view/experience there; you can also mail your story to parasitologyonline [at] gmail dot com.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Do I Get Diagnosed Correctly?

I can tell especially from Facebook discussions that people across the globe wanting to know about their "Blastocystis status" are worried that they are receiving false-negative results from their stool tests, and that many Blastocystis infections go unnoticed. And I think I should maybe try and say a few things on this (please also see a recent blog post on diagnosis, - you'll find it here). I might try and simplify things a bit in order not to make the post too long.

Below, you'll find a tentative representation of the life cycle of Blastocystis. It is taken from CDC, from the otherwise quite useful website DPDx - Laboratory Identification of Parasites of Public Health Concern.

Proposed life cycle of Blastocystis.
I don't know how useful it is, but what's important here is the fact that we accidentally ingest cysts of Blastocystis, and we shed cysts that can be passed on to other hosts. The cyst stage is the transmissible stage, and the way the parasite can survive outside the body; we don't know for how long cysts can survive and remain infective. In our intestine and triggered by various stimuli, the cysts excyst, transiting to the non-cyst form, which could be called the trophozoite / "troph" stage, or to use a Blastocystis-specific term, the "vacuolar stage" (many stages have been described for Blastocystis, but I might want to save that for later!). This is possibly the stage in the life cycle where the parasite settles, thrives, multiplies, etc. You can see a picture of vacuolar stages in this blog post. Many protozoa follow this simple life cycle pattern, among them Giardia and most species of Entamoeba. If the stool is diarrhoeic and you are infected by any one or more of these parasites, it may be so that only trophozoites, and, importantly, no cysts, are shed! This has something to do with reduced intestinal transit time and, maybe more importantly, the failure of the colon to resorb water from the stool which means that the trophozoites do not get the usual encystation stimuli. Importantly, trophozoites are in general non-infectious.

There is documentation that once colonised with Blastocystis, you may well carry it with you for years on end, and as already mentioned a couple of times, no single drug or no particular diet appears to be capable of eradicating Blastocystis - this is supported by the notion that Blastocystis prevalence seems to be increasing by age, although spontaneous resolution may not be uncommon, - we don't know much about this. Now, although day-to-day variation in the shedding of Blastocystis has been described, it is my general impression that colonised individuals may shed the parasite with each stool passage, and well-trained lab technicians/parasitologists will be able to pick up Blastocystis in a direct smear (both cysts and trophs may be seen). To do a direct smear you simply just mix a very small portion of the stool with saline or PBS on a slide, put a cover slip over it and do conventional light microscopy at x200 (screening) or x400 (verification). Very light infections may be difficult to detect this way, and if you don't have all the time in the world, a direct smear may not be the first choice.

The "king" of parasitological methods, however, is microscopy of faecal concentrates (Formol Ethyl Acetate Concentration Technique and any variant thereof), which is remarkable in its ability to detect a huge variety of parasites. Especially cysts of protozoa (e.g. Giardia and Entamoeba) and eggs of helminths (e.g. tapeworm, whipworm and roundworm) concentrate well and are identified to genus and species levels based on morphology. The method is not as sensitive as DNA-based methods such as PCR, but as I said, has the advantage of picking up a multitude of parasites and therefore good for screening; PCR methods are targeted towards particular species (types) of parasites. A drawback of the concentration method is that it doesn't allow you to detect trophzoites (i.e. the fragile, non-cystic stage), and, as mentioned, diarrhoeic samples may contain only trophozoites and no cysts...

In many countries it is very common for people to be infected by both protozoa and helminths, and in those countries microscopy of faecal concentrates is a relevant diagnostic choice. In Denmark and many Western European countries, the level of parasitism is higher than might be expected (from a hygiene and food safety point of view) but due to only few parasitic species. Paradoxically, the intestinal parasites that people harbour in this part of the world are parasites that do not concentrate well. They are mainly:

1) Blastocystis
2) Dientamoeba fragilis
3) Pinworm (Enterobius vermicularis)

Only troph stages have been described for Dientamoeba fragilis and it may be transmitted by a vector, such as pinworm (look up paper by Röser et al. in the list below for more information); this mode of transmission is not unprecedented (e.g. Histomonas transmission by Heterakis). Eggs of pinworm may be present in faeces, but a more sensitive method is the tape test.

Now, Blastocystis often disintegrates in the faecal concentration process, and while you might be lucky to pick up the parasite in a faecal concentrate, you shouldn't count on it, and hence the method is not reliable, unless the faecal sample was fixed immediatley after being voided. This is key, and also why fixatives are used for the collection of stool samples in many parts of the world - to enable the detection of fragile stages of parasites. There are many fixatives, e.g. SAF (sodium acetate-acetic formalin), PVA (poly-vinyl alcohol) and even plain formalin will do the trick if it's just a matter of preserving the parasite in the sample. If SAF or PVA is used, this allows you to do permanently stained smears of faecal concentrates, and you will be able to pick up not only cysts of protozoa, but even trophozoites. Trichrome and iron-haematoxylin staining are common methods and are sensitive but very time-consuming and may be related to some health hazards as well due to the use of toxic agents. But this way of detecting parasites is like good craftmanship - it requires a lot of expertise, but then you get to look at fascinating structures with intriguing nuclear and cytoplasmatic diagnostic hallmarks. Truly, morphological diagnosis of parasites is an art form! Notably, samples preserved in such fixatives may be useless for molecular analyses.

Iron-haematoxylin stain of trophozoites of Entamoeba coli
(note the "dirty" cytoplasm characteristic of E. coli).

At our lab we supplement microscopy of faecal concentrates with DNA-based detection of parasites. For some clinically significant parasites, we do a routine screen by PCR, since this is more sensitive than microscopy of faecal concentrates and because this is a semi-automated analysis that involves only DNA extraction, PCR and test result interpretation, which are all things that can be taught easily. Major drawbacks of diagnostic PCR is that you cannot really distinguish between viable (patent infection) and dead organisms (infection resolving, e.g. due to treatment). This is why, in the case of Blastocystis, you may want to do a stool culture as well (at least in post-treatment situations), since only viable cells will be able to grow, obviously.

Two diagnostic real-time PCR analyses have been published, one using CYBR Green and one using a TaqMan probe.

Now, it certainly differs from lab to lab as to which method is used for Blastocystis detection. Some labs apparently apply thresholds for number of parasites detected per visual field, and only score a sample positive if more than 5 parasites per visual field have been detected. I see no support for choosing a threshold, since 1) we do not know whether any Blastocystis-related symptoms are exacerbated by parasite intensity, 2) the number of parasites detected in a faecal concentrate may depend on so many things which have nothing to do with the observer (fluctuations in shedding for instance), and 3) the pathogenic potential of Blastocystis may very well depend on subtype.

If Blastocystis was formally acknolwedged as a pathogen, like Giardia, standardisation of methods would have happened by now. Meanwhile, we can only advocate for the use of PCR and culture if accurate diagnosis of Blastocystis is warranted, while permanent staining of fixed faecal samples constitutes a very good alternative in situations where PCR is not an option.

I have the impression that some labs do DNA-based detection of microbes, including protozoa, and that a result such as "taxonomy unknown" is not uncommon. I don't know how these labs have designed their molecular assays, and therefore I cannot comment on the diagnostic quality and relevance of those tests... it also depends on whether labs do any additional testing as well, such as the more traditional parasitological tests. However, we do know that there is a lot of organisms in our intestine, for which no data are available in GenBank, which is why it is sometimes impossible to assign a name to e.g. non-human eukaryotic DNA amplified from a stool sample.

* More than 1 billion people may harbour Blastocystis.
* Blastocystis is found mainly in the large intestine.
* 95% of humans colonised by Blastocystis have one of the following subtypes: ST1, ST2, ST3, ST4.
* DNA-based detection combined with culture ensures accurate detection of Blastocystis in stool samples and enables subtyping and viability assessment.

Further reading:

Poirier P, Wawrzyniak I, Albert A, El Alaoui H, Delbac F, & Livrelli V (2011). Development and evaluation of a real-time PCR assay for detection and quantification of blastocystis parasites in human stool samples: prospective study of patients with hematological malignancies. Journal of clinical microbiology, 49 (3), 975-83 PMID: 21177897

Röser D, Nejsum P, Carlsgart AJ, Nielsen HV, & Stensvold CR (2013). DNA of Dientamoeba fragilis detected within surface-sterilized eggs of Enterobius vermicularis. Experimental parasitology, 133 (1), 57-61 PMID: 23116599

Scanlan PD, & Marchesi JR (2008). Micro-eukaryotic diversity of the human distal gut microbiota: qualitative assessment using culture-dependent and -independent analysis of faeces. The ISME journal, 2 (12), 1183-93 PMID: 18670396

Stensvold CR, Ahmed UN, Andersen LO, & Nielsen HV (2012). Development and Evaluation of a Genus-Specific, Probe-Based, Internal-Process-Controlled Real-Time PCR Assay for Sensitive and Specific Detection of Blastocystis spp. Journal of clinical microbiology, 50 (6), 1847-51 PMID: 22422846

Stensvold CR, Arendrup MC, Jespersgaard C, Mølbak K, & Nielsen HV (2007). Detecting Blastocystis using parasitologic and DNA-based methods: a comparative study. Diagnostic microbiology and infectious disease, 59 (3), 303-7 PMID: 17913433

Stensvold CR, & Nielsen HV (2012). Comparison of microscopy and PCR for detection of intestinal parasites in Danish patients supports an incentive for molecular screening platforms. Journal of clinical microbiology, 50 (2), 540-1 PMID: 22090410