Showing posts with label protist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label protist. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

ICOP XIV in Vancouver 28 July to 2 August 2013

The International Congress of Protistology (ICOP) takes place every four years, and so the 14th ICOP takes place from the 28th of July to the 2nd of August in Vancouver, Canada.

Most single-celled parasites infecting humans are known as 'protozoa', but Blastocystis does not belong to this group of organisms; meanwhile, protists comprise both protozoa along with a multitude of other very diverse species, including the Stramenopiles, to which Blastocystis belong. Protists include both uni- and multi-cellular eukaryotic organisms and are distinguished from animals, fungi and plants by a simpler cellular organisation.

The conference abstract book can be downloaded here, and presents a perplexing multitude of very interesting and diverse abstracts. There are four abstracts on Blastocystis alone, and two of them are presented by Dr Roger's group in Halifax, Canada + their international colleagues.

Phylogenomic analyses of large-scale alignments enable the outlining  of evolutionary relationship among major eukaryotic lineages and are highly facilitated by recent technological advances; several abstracts deal with such analyses. Eme et al. (Roger's group) present additional observations from an important phylogenomic study of Blastocystis sp. ST1 reiterating the importance of lateral gene transfer in enabling Blastocystis to adapt to a parasitic life style. Gentekaki et al. (Roger's group) present data on the draft genome of Blastocystis sp. ST1. Until recently, only one Blastocystis genome was available, namely that of ST7. The present data show remarkable differences between the ST1 draft genome and the ST7 genome. While the genome of ST7 comprises 18.8 MB, the genome of ST1 is only 14.0 MB long, and apparently there's  virtually no synteny among the two genomes! Almost 30% of the 5,637 predicted ST1 genes had no homologues in ST7. What is more: 'Orthologous proteins shared by the two genomes are only 51% identical on average. The predicted secreted protein repertoire also differs significantly; ST7 possesses ~300 whereas ST1-NandII has only 129.' Indeed, it appears that Blastocystis comprises some extremely diverse organisms! We are still trying to explore the clinical implications of this...

Alison Jacob, Graham Clark, and I contribute with an abstract on comparative analyses of 8 mitochondrion-like organelle (MLO) genomes from 5 subtypes. Contrary to the nuclear genomes, there is complete synteny and homology between the subtypes at MLO level, although the sequences diverge by up to 25%.

Tamalee Roberts and colleagues present data from analysis of 438 samples from a staggering 38 species in Australia. They found Blastocystis in 18 species, including kangaroos, wallaroos, snow leopard, and ostrich, and obtained subtype data from a total 80 samples.

The genetic universe of  Entamoeba is expanding quickly in these years. Silberman and colleagues (Arkansas, USA) provide data from analysis of Entamoeba from insects such as honeybees, cranefly larvae and multiple cockroach and beetle species. There is no information on any pathogenic properties of insect-infecting Entamoeba however.

The abstract book is also a place to learn that marine diatoms are responsible for about one-fifth of global photosynthesis (Armbrust, Seattle, USA) and that photosynthetic marine algae are responsible for 50% of global CO2 uptake (Worden, Moss Landing, USA).

There is quite a few abstracts on protist diversity and how NGS tools allow us to study this in a more comprehensive and exhaustive way and the need for taxonomic standardisation. Protist-barcoding includes metabarcoding (de Vargas, Roscoff, France) and some of the taxonomic challenges related to this are presented by Dr Pawlowski, Geneva, Switzerland.

Similar to Blastocystis, the trypanosomatids (Trypanosoma and Leishmania) cannot be classified according to morphology and host range, hence, molecular markers are warranted, and there's an abstract by Maslov (California, USA) on the general applicability of 'alternative barcoding', namely the use of Spliced Leader (SL) RNA gene repeats.

There is quite a few abstracts on 'rare ciliates' in harsh environments, and I bring your attention also to a previous blog post on extremophilic eukaryotes.

We also learn that free-living protozoa can tell us more about the origins of anaerobic parasites (Simpson, Halifax, Canada). And there is a group setting up a Plasmodium life cycle to study the metabolic steps critical to the malaria life cycle (McFadden, Melbourne, Australia).

There's a really teasing abstract on analysis of surface water samples from Italy, where Angelici et al. have developed a barcoding-like analysis based on ITS 2 and SSU rRNA genes to enable detection of parasites of clinical and epidemiological interest, but there is no information on how exactly the method was designed, and the authors do not list the parasites that they found... I'm not attending the congress myself, so here's hoping for some twitter updates on this...

One could go on and on, - why don't you have a look inside the abstract book yourself?!

Incidentally, Dr Tai from Vancouver, Canada, promts us to help protists getting into pop culture by wearing t-shirts silkscreened by hand using Ernst Haeckel's diagrams of phytoplankton and light micrographs of parabasalids! Don't know exactly how to get hold of these, but googling 'Ernst Haeckel' and 'phytoplankton' might get you started (go for Google images).

For those interested in protists (and art!), I recommend the blog 'The Ocelloid'. 

Suggested reading:

Denoeud F, Roussel M, Noel B, Wawrzyniak I, Da Silva C, Diogon M, Viscogliosi E, Brochier-Armanet C, Couloux A, Poulain J, Segurens B, Anthouard V, Texier C, Blot N, Poirier P, Ng GC, Tan KS, Artiguenave F, Jaillon O, Aury JM, Delbac F, Wincker P, Vivarès CP, & El Alaoui H (2011). Genome sequence of the stramenopile Blastocystis, a human anaerobic parasite. Genome Biology, 12 (3) PMID: 21439036

Stensvold CR, Lebbad M, Victory EL, Verweij JJ, Tannich E, Alfellani M, Legarraga P, & Clark CG (2011). Increased sampling reveals novel lineages of Entamoeba: consequences of genetic diversity and host specificity for taxonomy and molecular detection. Protist, 162 (3), 525-41 PMID: 21295520

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Blastocystis aux Enfers

We tremble at the thought of being devoured by a ferocious animal, - of ending our days in a narrow, suffocating slimy tube covered in acidic, nauseating glaze! Remarkably, for some eukaryotic beings, this is the only way forward if they want to carry on with their lives! Intestinal protists such as Blastocystis are in a state of hibernation when outside our bodies and the only thing that may rouse these Sleeping Beauties to action is the passage through low pH enzyme ponds. They thrive, grow and raise their progeny only in the swampy Tartarus of our large intestines; they bequeath to their offspring the affinity for this gloomy, filthy slew; this murky, densely populated, polluted channel, and when the pool of poo becomes all too arid, they know it’s time to buckle up, shut down, and prepare themselves for the great unknown which can potentially mean death to them if eventually they are not lucky enough to be gulped down by another suitable host.

And yet, despite their remarkable modesty and humble requirements these little buggers are being bullied by their inhospitable human hosts; we’d throw anything at them to force them out, organic and inorganic compounds meant to arrest or even kill them. But the whelps of Blastocystis appear extremely resilient, which may hold the key to part of their success; they stay afloat on the Styx of our bowels. In order to eschew Flagyl, perhaps they bribed Phlegyas?

I think it's sometimes useful to put things into a completely different perspective. In any event, from an evolutionary biology standpoint it is highly interesting that a genus which is genetically related to water molds such as those causing potato blight and sudden oak death, has so successfully adapted to a parasitic, anaerobic life style, capable of protractedly colonising a plethora of very diverse host species including members of primates, other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods and thereby evading innate and adaptive immune defenses from such a diverse range of hosts. One could be inclined to say: Well done! But which is it? Parasitism? Commensalism? Mutalism? Symbiosis? And what will happen to Blastocystis in the future? Will this successful crusader eventually succumb to our avid but maybe imprudent war strategies? And if so, what will happen to us after removing such a common player from our intestinal ecosystems?

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

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What is Blastocystis?

Intestinal parasites of humans can be divided into mainly helminths ('worms' including cestodes, nematodes and trematodes), and single-celled eukaryotic organisms. Most single-celled intestinal parasites belong to one of four main groups:
  • Archamoebae or Amoeboids (e.g. Entamoba, Iodamoeba, Endolimax)
  • Ciliates (e.g. Balantidium)
  • Sporozoa (e.g. Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Cystoisospora; even microsporidia)
  • Flagellates (e.g. Giardia, Chilomastix, Enteromonas, Pentatrichomonas, Retortamonas, Dientamoeba (unflagellated flagellate!))
Traditionally, these four groups have been referred to as protozoa.

However, the most common, single-celled intestinal parasitic eukaryote, Blastocystis, does not belong in any of these four categories. Taxonomically, Blastocystis belongs to the heterogeneous group of Stramenopiles, which includes slime nets, diatoms, water moulds and brown algae. Most stramenopiles are free-living organisms. Blastocystis is an atypical stramenopile not only as this group is named for the straw-like tubular hairs on the flagella and sometimes the cell body - Blastocystis has no flagella and lacks any tubular hairs - but also due to its parasitic nature.

Often, Blastocystis is referred to as a 'protozoon', although 'protist' is more appropriate. Protists can be defined basically as any eukaryote that is not a plant, an animal or a fungus.

One of the closest relatives of Blastocystis identified to date is Proteromonas lacertae, a parasite of reptiles.

Interestingly, Proteromonas does have flagella and hairs on the cell body. For comparison, the image below shows Blastocystis (culture) - appearing almost amoeboid, only with very limited morphological hallmarks (note examples of binary fission and the eccentrically located nuclei and mitochondrion-like organelles).

Blastocystis is one of two Stramenopiles known to infect humans, the other being Pythium insidiosum, which has been associated with keratitis and dermatological lesions mainly in SE Asia.

Other organisms with close relation to Blastocystis include Karotomorpha, Cepedea, Protoopalina and Opalina.

For further information, please visit

Silberman, J., Sogin, M., Leipe, D., & Clark, C. (1996). Human parasite finds taxonomic home Nature, 380 (6573), 398-398 DOI: 10.1038/380398a0  

HOEVERS, J., & SNOWDEN, K. (2005). Analysis of the ITS region and partial ssu and lsu rRNA genes of Blastocystis and Proteromonas lacertae Parasitology, 131 (2), 187-196 DOI: 10.1017/S0031182005007596  

Kostka, M., Cepicka, I., Hampl, V., & Flegr, J. (2007). Phylogenetic position of Karotomorpha and paraphyly of Proteromonadidae Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 43 (3), 1167-1170 DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2006.11.002