Friday, September 28, 2012

Brazilian Society of Protozoology - 2012 meeting

It's time to bone up on my Portuguese! Off to

XXVIII Reunião Anual da Sociedade Brasileira de Protozoologia

in Caxambu, Brazil tomorrow.

Giving keynote lecture on 3rd of October. Title of talk: "Blastocystis - friend or foe?"

The lecture is mainly based on thoughts presented in my recent paper: "Thinking Blastocystis Out of The Box" (PMID: 22704911) and output from our most recent studies.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bugs Galore!

After spending more than 8 years in clinical microbiology with special reference to parasitology, I’ve come to realise that it truly is a bug’s life! Use of nucleic acid-based methods such as PCR in routine clinical microbiology diagnostic labs have revealed that single-celled parasites are colonising the intestine of up to 50% of the Danish population! And so what? Well, this finding has several implications.

A couple of months ago I revisited Why it is a bugs life by Jörg Blech (The Guardian (2002)). Speaking of numbers, - I wonder which one is the most successful eukaryote in terms of numbers? Blastocystis? Dientamoeba? Or any other “Parasite sp.”? After realising that microscopy methods allow us to see only the very tip of the iceberg and after adding PCR to our routine diagnostics, we have found a few examples of “novel” parasitic species and many more may be in store for us. Morphologically identical organisms, such as those belonging to Iodamoeba bütschlii, may be found in both human and non-human hosts and may differ genetically across the nucelar small subunit rRNA gene by up to more than 30%! This is quite astonishing given the fact that the difference between human and murine small subunit rDNA is about 1%! Since these data have been established only recently, obviously no one knows the respective clinical significance of these morphologically similar but genetically very different lineages, and further studies may reveal differences in pathogenicity as seen in other amoebic genera. Blastocystis and Entamoeba coli are somewhat similar examples.

Our results reveal that faecal-oral transmission is much more common in Denmark - a highly industrialised country where drinking water comes from waterworks (i.e. no surface water supplies), where outbreaks even due to bacteria are scarce, and where authorities spend 1.2 billion DKK on food safety and control. Today, 90% of dwellings in Denmark (5.6m citizens) are connected to efficient sewage systems, and Denmark has more than 1,400 treatment plants to purify wastewater from households, businesses and institutions. But somewhere the chain pops off… Even in Denmark it is “bugs galore”, which means that faecal exposure is much more common that we would probably like to think. Intestinal protists (primarily Blastocystis and Dientamoeba) are telltales of exposure to faecal contamination and faecal-oral transmission.

In Denmark, 90% of dwellings are connected to efficient sewage systems, and the country has more than 1,400 treatment plants.

However, we might also learn to see these parasites as other types of indicators. In our experience Danish patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) represent a cohort of people whose gut flora is remarkably different from that of other cohorts (patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and patients with non-IBD/non-IBS diarrhoea): Apparently IBD patients don’t harbour parasites. This can in part be explained by the fact that some IBD patients have had bowel resection, but even IBD patients with in intact bowel system are generally negative for parasites.

We know that in highly developed countries the prevalence of helminth infections has gone down over the past few decades due to improved hygiene measures, but maybe also due to other reasons, which have not been clarified, but as we have seen, many of us are still positive for one or more intestinal parasites. However, most IBD patients do not have any parasites at all. This correlates well with the hygiene hypothesis, and it may be so that not only helminths, but also amoebae, which are able to colonise our guts for months and even years, may be co-responsible for 1) preventing us from developing inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune diseases by immunomodulatory mechanisms, and 2) maintaining a sound intestinal flora and ecology. Or is it so that these protists are dependent on a certain gut ecology or gut flora in order to colonise our intestines for a longer period, and in this way, they can be seen as indicators of a certain gut microbiota? Do they have any modulatory functions or do they happen to "lead their own life"?

As a parasitologist and worshipper of most things eukaryotic, I was both pleased and disconcerted after leaving the MetaHIT conference in Paris in March. Pleased, since the stratification of people into enterotypes and correlation of enterotypes to disease phenotypes suited my naïve, B/W perception of the world, but disconcerted since all presentations and posters addressed only bacteria (and virus to a minor extent, - maybe one on archaea even?). But, how about intestinal yeasts and parasites? Where in the gene catalogues and pools of metagenomic data could I find information on eukaryotes? Nowhere. Which hopefully boils down to methodological limitations rather than absence of interest.

The concept of paving an avenue of new knowledge with metagenomics data is holistic in its approach, but it currently fails to encompass a common part of the intestinal microbiota, possibly due to methodological limitations. However, we are probably facing the imminent inclusion of eukaryotic data in metagenomic studies, and this will enable us to investigate the potential role of intestinal protists and maybe yeasts as biomarkers of certain enterotypes and maybe even disease or health phenotypes.

Further reading:

Stensvold CR, Lebbad M, & Clark CG (2012). Last of the human protists: the phylogeny and genetic diversity of Iodamoeba. Molecular biology and evolution, 29 (1), 39-42 PMID: 21940643

Stensvold CR (2012). Thinking Blastocystis out of the box. Trends in parasitology, 28 (8) PMID: 22704911