Thursday, May 29, 2014

Happy World Digestive Health Day!

Today is World Digestive Health Day!

The theme is 'Gut Microbes -  Importance in Health and Disease'.

United European Gastroenterology (UEG), a professional non-profit organisation combining all the leading European societies concerned with digestive diseases, has launched a short video to raise awareness of such diseases:

In 2000, 600 million patients suffered from a gastrointestinal disease. By 2025, this is predicted to double to 1.2 billion (source).

For those interested (and with access!), there is a special issue on 'The Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease' in the journal Gastroenterology, one of the most renown and established journals in the field.

I would also like to bring your attention to the 5th ASM Conference on Beneficial Microbes, September 27-30 in Washington DC. Deadline for submission of abstracts is July 14.

Wishing everyone a nice World Digestive Health Day!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Blastocystis Conference Website Launched!

I have the pleasure of introducing the official website for the 1st International Blastocystis Symposium scheduled for the 28-29 May, 2015, in Ankara, Turkey.

Please go to to visit and bookmark the page and to subscribe to updates via email or rss.

We'll be back shortly on the site with updates on the scientific committee, the venue, and how to submit abstracts (including deadline).

Please share. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Planet Blastocystis

Well, no, this is not the Sun or Jupiter or any other gaseous galactic giant, nor is it Olympus Mons at half past nine, - but it's something quite as fascinating: Blastocystis. Even Blastocystis seen in a beautiful trichrome-stained fixed faecal smear viewed through a light microscope.

The image was sent to me by Dr Funda Dogruman-Al, Gazi University of Ankara. Colours and image quality have been manipulated a bit, - but especially the background colour may in fact vary substantially in trichrome stained preparations. I can point out at least five Blastocystis... even six, I think, like islands in an archipelago of microbes and debris, - reminiscent of volcanic craters with molten lava scarring the surface of a planet...

... which reminds me of an article from the magazine 'Microbe' (which I'm so fortunate to get in hard copy every month - sent to my office - what an immense luxury) by Arturo Casadevall and Ferric C Fang on the advantages and drawbacks on specialized science (April 2014 issue). In the article they cite a passage attributed to Konrad Lorenz:
Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.
After ten years of Blastocystis studies, it's not strange that you begin to feel the gravitational pull of Planet Blastocystis - orbiting in a remote corner of the Microbiology Galaxy, however rewarding life there may be... I therefore second the strategies brought forward in the article 'Specialized Science' to mitigate the drawbacks of specialisation, and from personal experience I believe that it is extremely important to throw yourself into a different scientific field - at least for a short while. I also think that if we keep asking ourselves why we are doing what we're doing, this will to some degree prevent us from ending up too high in our ivory towers... or spending too much time on Blastocystis - or on any other planet.

While you're here: Why not take a sneak peek at ?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Parasite-Microbiota-Host Interactions

One of the current mantras in microbiology is that 'bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one'. This has been known for a long time, but I guess that the main reason why this is being hyped nowadays is due to the fact that current technologies now enable us to look at entire microbial communities in a given ecological niche at any time point and how for instance they relate to health and disease.

Casadevall and Pirofski already made this point clear back in 2000 in their great minireview in the journal Infection and Immunity on 'Host-Pathogen Interactions: Basic Concepts of Microbial Commensalism, Colonization, Infection, and Disease'. This is a great paper that helps us understand and distinguish between the many ways microbes impact on our body. First and foremost, it allows us to understand that microbes can be commensals in some hosts but cause disease in other hosts, and that very few microbes are obligate pathogens.

Anatomical drawing of abdomen, ca. 1900 (Elisa Schorn). Source.

Commensalism is defined by these authors as 'a state of infection that results in either no damage or clinically inapparent damage to the host, though it can elicit an immune response'. And a commensal is a 'microbe that induces either no damage or clinically inapparent damage after primary infection; a state that is thought to be established early in life'. In terms of the antibody response, 'it is not known whether these immune responses reflect the occurrence of an unidentified form of damage to the host'. Importantly, 'commensals also synthesise metabolites that are essential nutrients for the host'.

According to Casadevall and Pirofski, colonisation is 'a state of infection that results in a continuum of damage from none to great, with the latter leading to the induction of host responses that could eliminate or retain the microbe, or progress to chronicity or disease; for organisms that induce no damage during infection this state is indistinguishable from commensalism'.

I guess that to this end comes the concept of tolerance...Some single-celled parasites are common in young mammals such as calves and lambs (for instance Cryptosporidium and - it appears - microsporidia (unpublished data)), but appear to be cleared by host immune response mechanisms, while other parasites are establishing chronic colonisation, - parasites such as Entamoeba and Blastocystis. The latter parasites may also colonise humans for years on end... So why do we not eliminate these parasites? Blaser writes back in 1997: 'Failure to eliminate the parasite implies that the cost to the host is greater than the benefit. This may be due to high costs (e.g., loss of vital (...) functions), or significant benefits (e.g., protection against lethal diseases), or that both cost and benefit are relatively low'.

In Blastocystis research most scientists appear to be preoccupied by identifying a role for Blastocystis in disease, driven by the black and white concept that either it's pathogenic or not... or at least that if it can cause disease, it's by definition a pathogen! I think the paper by Casadevall and Pirofski shows with great clarity why we should try and take a much more differentiated view on Blastocystis and it's role in health and disease.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, Blastocystis is practically an obligate finding in some societies, while more rare in others. In some communities it may be common to contract it in very early childhood (infants/toddlers), while in other communities you may not be infected or infected only in adulthood. In Denmark, the prevalence in the healthy adult population is about 30%, and there may be countries where the prevalence is even lower - typically in regions, where the general population has been 'intestinally defaunated' (presumably due to excessive hygiene combined with a Westernised diet). And so, in some places this parasite is getting so uncommon that it may at some point become a cause of disease, a so-called 'emerging pathogen'... Conjectural maybe, but still not far fetched.

Simultaneously, evidence is emerging that intestinal microbial eukaryotes (Blastocystis and Dientamoeba fragilis) are significantly more common in healthy individuals than in patients with gastrointestinal disease such as IBS and - especially - IBD, suggesting that these parasites are protective of functional and organic bowel disease. Do they prime our immune system in a beneficial way? Do they select for beneficial bacteria? Do they keep potential harmful microbial intruders at bay? Could they be synthesising metabolites beneficial to the host just like ciliates involved in fermentation processes in the large intestine of various herbivorous mammals?

This is why the exploration of the structure and function of intestinal pro- and eukaryotic communities is so important. For instance, can we link Blastocystis to any intestinal microbial patterns? At our lab, we think we can, and it's something that we will try and explore further (if funding can be obtained). Our null hypotheses include the following:

1) The distribution of pro- and eukaryotes is random (for instance: Blastocystis is not statistically associated with the presence of particular bacteria or other eukaryotes (fungi, parasites)).

2) The introduction of a Blastocystis strain into an intestinal microbial niche does not cause alteration of the composition of the pro- and eukaryotic flora. This can be studied using an animal model, and it is tempting to try and study host immunological parameters during and after challenge with Blastocystis. Also gene expression in both host and microbial communities could be studied.

Take home message is that we should be cautious with regard to deeming a parasite as being either 'pathogenic' or 'non-pathogenic'... parasites may have a multitude of functions and may impact their hosts in a variety of ways that together with all other types of impact from and interactions with other microorganisms (microbiota) results in a health/disease matrix in every single individual.

Finally: Here's to pageview # 200,000! See you in Boston on Sunday morning at the #ASM2014 conference: Passion for Parasites !


Blaser, M. (1997). Ecology of Helicobacter pylori in the human stomach. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 100 (4), 759-762 DOI: 10.1172/JCI119588  

Casadevall, A., & Pirofski, L. (2000). Host-Pathogen Interactions: Basic Concepts of Microbial Commensalism, Colonization, Infection, and Disease. Infection and Immunity, 68 (12), 6511-6518 DOI: 10.1128/IAI.68.12.6511-6518.2000

Thursday, May 1, 2014

This Month In Blastocystis Research (APR 2014)

Due to all sorts of activities I have not been able to update myself with 'novelties' in the scientific Blastocystis literature lately.

Instead, I would like to highlight two review/opinion papers on the use of PCR-based methods for diagnosis of intestinal parasitic infections in the clinical microbiology laboratory.

Both papers have been published very recently (actually one is still 'in press'). The first is co-authored by Jaco J Verweij and myself, and appears in the April issue of 'Clinical Microbiology Reviews'. This paper aims to provide a relatively systematic review of the extent and relevance of PCR- and sequencing-based methods for diagnosis and epidemiology studies of intestinal parasites, and is as such an inventory of all sorts of DNA-based diagnostic and typing modalities for individual protists and helminths.

The second one is authored solely by Jaco J Verweij and is currently in the 'first online' section in the journal 'Parasitology'. This paper offers a discussion of the application of PCR-based method as a supplementary tool or a substitute for conventional methods (microscopy, antigen detection, etc.). Dr Verweij deals with central questions such as 'Is Molecular Detection Good Enough?' and 'Is Molecular Detection Too Good To Be True?'.

And so these two papers complement each other quite well. For those interested in the very low prevalence of intestinal helminth infections in the Western world, the latter paper has a table which summarizes some quite stunning data.

Although DNA-based methods currently in use do have quite a few limitations, I do believe that for a long while the application of species- and genus-specific PCR methods (real-time PCR, conventional PCR + sequencing, etc.) will appear relevant and state-of-the-art. Dr Verweij, I and a few of our colleagues around the world are currently discussing to which extent next generation sequencing methods can be used to
  • generate data that can assist us in identifying the role of pro- and eukaryote microbial communities in health and disease
  • serve as a tool to generate sequences that can be processed by designated software and thereby identify patterns of microbial communities associated with various disease and health conditions
To this end, at the Laboratory of Parasitology, Statens Serum Institut, we are currently assisting in the development of a software called BIONmeta. BION meta is an open-source package for rRNA based pro- and eukaryote community analysis. Like Qiime and Mothur it is open source but with a growing number of advantages. The package has so far been developed mostly by Niels Larsen (DK), one of the original Ribosomal Database Project authors. It is as yet unpublished, but has been selected for in-house trial-use by companies and institutions that also partly sponsor its development.When relevant, I'll post more information on this software.


Verweij JJ, & Stensvold CR (2014). Molecular testing for clinical diagnosis and epidemiological investigations of intestinal parasitic infections. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 27 (2), 371-418 PMID: 24696439

Verweij, JJ. (2014). Application of PCR-based methods for diagnosis of intestinal parasitic infections in the clinical laboratory Parasitology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1017/S0031182014000419