Showing posts with label research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label research. Show all posts

Thursday, November 10, 2016

This Month in Blatstocystis Research (OCT 2016)

A few things to highlight:

I'm very pleased to announce the Special Issue on Blastocystis recently appearing in Parasitology International - go here for the list of contents. The papers included in this issue represent the breadth of the contributions made to the 1st International Blastocystis Symposium, which took place last year in Ankara. A couple of review and opinion articles written by members of the Scientific Committee are accompanied by several articles outlining original research findings that were presented at the symposium. This special issue is particularly useful for younger researchers who wish to familiarise themselves with some of the methods that are currently in use in surveys of Blastocystis.
Readers should not expect to find articles on Blastocystis in a microbiota context; nor should they expect to see data from seminal studies that challenge the view that Blastocystis is a possible pathogen. Nevertheless, there is an interesting opinion paper with the title "Eradication of Blastocystis in humans--really necessary for all?"

Led by Dr Alison Jacob and Dr Graham Clark, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, our group just published an article on a comparative study of Blastocystis mitochondrial genomes. In general, mitochondrial genomes differ vastly in length, structure, and gene content across organisms, and by studying these genomes it has been possible to develop hypotheses on how these organisms have evolved including the adaptive/non-adaptive processes involved in shaping organismal and genomic complexity. Unlike most anaerobic eukaryotes, Blastocystis does not have true mitochondria but has mitochondrion-related organelles (MROs; also referred to as mitochondrion-like organelles [MLO]) that contain a genome. In the study in question, we sequenced and compared mitochondrial genomes from subtypes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9. All of them have the same genes in the same order, but two curiosities were noted. One gene, called orf160, as stop codons near the beginning of the coding region in most subtypes. A second gene, coding for ribosomal protein S4, lacks a start codon in some subtypes.
In both cases, these characteristics would normally prevent a gene from being expressed, but because these genes are otherwise conserved and most of the gene is 'intact', it seems likely that the genes are functional. Ribosomal protein S4 is considered an essential component of the ribosome needed for protein synthesis in the organelle. How the genes are expressed to produce functional proteins remains a mystery, - just one more peculiarity of Blastocystis!

In the growing pool of articles exploring relationships between intestinal parasites and gut microbiota, I was pleased to discover an article by Iebba et al. (2016) on "Gut microbiota related to Giardia duodeanlis, Entamoeba spp. and Blastocystis hominis infections in humans from Côte d'Ivoire". In this observational study, the authors used qPCR to detect groups of bacteria that are indicative of dysbiosis vs eubiosis, dysbiosis being a perturbed, imbalanced microbiota and eubiosis being a healthy, balanced gut microbiota. The authors found that individuals with Blastocystis and Entamoeba were characterised by eubiosis, while individuals with Giardia were characterised by dysbiosis. It says that samples (n = 20) were randomly chosen, but even so, the number of samples tested was low, and care should be taken when interpreting the results. The overall approach, however, is interesting, and somewhat resembles the work that we have been doing in our lab (ref). I also recently blogged about another study with a similar aim (go here to view the post).

I would also like to bring your attention to the EMBO Conference "Anaerobic protists: Integrating parasitology with mucosal microbiota and immunology", which will take place in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK in Aug/Sep 2017 (image). I will be there doing my best to deliver a stimulating talk on current knowledge and advances in Blastocystis and Dientamoeba research. You can visit the conference website by folloing this link

References:

Dogruman-Al F, Stensvold CR, & Yoshikawa H (2016). Editorial - PAR INT - special issue on Blastocystis. Parasitology international, 65 (6 Pt B) PMID: 27742000

Iebba V, Santangelo F, Totino V, Pantanella F, Monsia A, Di Cristanziano V, Di Cave D, Schippa S, Berrilli F, & D'Alfonso R (2016). Gut microbiota related to Giardia duodenalis, Entamoeba spp. and Blastocystis hominis infections in humans from Côte d'Ivoire. Journal of infection in developing countries, 10 (9), 1035-1041 PMID: 27694739

Jacob AS, Andersen LO, Pavinski Bitar P, Richards VP, Shah S, Stanhope MJ, Stensvold CR, & Clark CG (2016). Blastocystis mitochondrial genomes appear to show multiple independent gains and losses of start and stop codons. Genome biology and evolution PMID: 27811175

Smith DR (2016). The past, present and future of mitochondrial genomics: have we sequenced enough mtDNAs? Briefings in functional genomics, 15 (1), 47-54 PMID: 26117139

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

This Month in Blastocystis Research (DEC 2015)

The potential pathogenicity of Blastocystis is something that has kept me preoccupied for more than a decade. Nonetheless, what I find perhaps even more interesting, is the overall role of Blastocystis in both health and disease.

And so, what do I mean by that?

Well, we just published a MiniReview in Journal of Clinical Microbiology (JCM) with the title: "Blastocystis in Health and Disease--Are we Moving from a Clinical to A Public Health Perspective?" I guess we were a bit lucky to get the paper published as a review, since it's probably more likely to be viewed upon as an Opinion paper, and so it would perhaps have been more suitable for a journal such as Trends in Parasitology. However, we would like medical doctors to be aware of our thoughts, and that's one of the reasons why we approached JCM.

Practically all Blastocystis research has focussed on identifying a role for the parasite in disease. Pathogenic properties have been identified for many other intestinal parasites since long; for Blastocystis, however, we still have no rockhard and reproducible evidence of
  • Outbreaks
  • Virulence-assoicated properties including invasiveness, phagocytosis, or adhesion to other cells
  • Symptom relief upon parasite eradication
Meanwhile, no one has really tried to looked into what Blastocystis may tell us about human health. Together with partner labs, our lab has produced data suggesting that Blastocystis carriage is extremely common, and probably also extremely long lasting. We have also shown that the parasite is associated with certain gut microbial communities and that it is more common in healthy individuals than in patients with IBD, IBS, etc. We have even identified intriguing data that suggest that Blastocystis may be less common in obese individuals compared with lean.



These are some of the most important reasons why I think that research into the public health significance of Blastocystis should be supported. We need to know much about what it means physiologically, microbiologically, and immunologically to be colonised, including 'what happens to our intestinal ecosystem when we are exposed to and colonised by Blastocystis?' Can we identify any benefits from colonisation, and if yes, which are these and can this knowledge be exploited with a view to producing drugs/probiotics that mimic any beneficient properties of Blastocystis? What does it mean to become colonised at an early age vs. only later in life?

In this regard, future areas of research could include studies on the ability of Blastocystis to
  • induce changes in bacterial communities in vitro and in vivo
  • assist in the metabolisation of food items (e.g., short-chain fatty acid metabolism)
  • promote stabilisation of gut microbiota
  • produce immunomodulatory and/or pro-/antibiotic substances, etc.

Happy New Year everone!

Reference:

Andersen LO & Stensvold CR (2015). Blastocystis in Health and Disease–Are We Moving from a Clinical to a Public Health Perspective? Journal of Clinical Microbiology PMID: 26677249

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Updated programme for the 1st International Blastocystis Symposium + Pre-Symposium Course programme

There has been changes to the programme for the 1st International Blastocystis Symposium (May 28-29), please go here to see the updated programme.

Also, the Pre-Symposium Course programme (May 27) can be viewed here.

We will be absolutely spoilt with speakers!

Please do not forget to visit the official website for updates on the social programme plus abstract/registration deadlines.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

This Month in Blastocystis Research (OCT 2014) - Trick or Treat Edition

Over the past 30 days I've hardly had any time to focus on Blastocystis. I've been busy preparing for and attending UEGWeek 2014, preparing abstracts for next year's ECCMID conference in Copenhagen, and I've also put a lot of effort into preparing proposals for this round of grant calls from the Danish Council for Independent Research

Among other things, we are applying for money to develop DNA-probe based diagnostics, including a unique software, for use in the clinical microbiology lab that entirely circumvents the use of PCR (and thereby amplification bias) and that screens sequence data in real-time. An issue with current state-of-the-art in the area is that no software is available to relevantly and reliably handle the tons of sequence data that next/third/fourth generation sequencing devices are capable of producing. The proposed software will have a vast application range, applicable not only to clinical microbiology but also other areas of microbiology, such as food control, water sanitation, and monitoring of microbes in oil, soil, etc.

We are applying for about 270.000 Euros, and although this doesn't sound like an awful lot of money, competition is extremely fierce for this type of grant (although I'm not sure that the competition has to do exclusively with the scientific and innovative quality of the proposal...). So, let's see if it's going to be trick or treat!

Earlier this month, I was honoured to give a talk in Padova at the XXX National Congress of the Italian Society of Protistology on Blastocystis and its role in health and disease. I also got the chance to listen to some of the remarkable talks delivered by passionate colleagues of the society. There was quite a lot on endosymbionts of protists. The development of mitochondria in eukaryotic cells is a classical example of endosymbiosis; however, there are numerous examples of e.g. bacteria infecting protists, including the parasitic ones. Legionella, for instance, may be found in Acanthamoebaknown to host a variety of bacterial endosymbionts. Along the same lines, I wish that studies could be made to look up potential endosymbionts in Blastocystis; endosymbionts which may confer disease, and the varying/unstable presence of which might explain the irregularity in symptoms reported by Blastocystis carriers? The question about endosymbionts in Blastocystis is interesting not only from a metabolic and horizontal gene transfer point-of-view, but also in the perspective of Blastocystis potentially serving as a vector, a vehicle for transmission of bacteria and maybe viruses... A nice paper on endosymbiotic associations within protists is available for a free download here. Rickettsia, for instance, are obligate intracellular bacteria found as endosymbionts in different types of eukaryotes, including amoebae, but also in endothelial cells (which are not phagocytic by nature, similar - presumably - to the case of Blastocystis), and some of these rickettsia are  known as causes of spotted fever and typhus. I think that Zierdt is the only one until now who has studied endosymbiosis in Blastocystis...

After the congress in Padova, I got a chance to pay my first visit ever to Venice, which was nothing short of brilliant.

Venice, October 2014.

I did have an hour here and there, however, to look up newest 'releases' on Blastocystis, and I'm just going to highlight a few of them.

Unfortunately in Russian and not available for download on any of the servers that I can access, there's a paper describing the finding of dividing (i.e. alive) forms of Blastocystis in a liver abscess in an immunocompromised woman. The question here is of course, did the parasite end up here by chance (fistula and/or secondary to bacterial invasion?) or by independent invasion? Hope to receive a copy of the paper at some point... and a translation!

There is a paper in a journal called 'Case Reports in Medicine' on what is called a co-infection of Schistosoma and Blastocystis in a 37-year-old male with chronic kidney disease, in whom Blastocystis was speculated to be the cause of chronic IBS-like symptoms. However, there is a number of issues that I would like readers of the paper to focus on: Apparently, the patient had Schistosoma mansoni detected in the urine suggesting schistosomiasis of the bladder. But how was Schistosoma detected? It doesn't say. Was it by microscopy? The patient was ab-positive, but still intestinal schistosomiasis was not ruled out (by e.g. PCR on faecal DNA, microscopy for ova and parasites, rectal biopsy, etc.). The patient responded well to praziquantel treatment and got rid of symptoms, including the intestinal symptoms ascribed to Blastocystis, for which the patient was prescribed metronidazole. We know that Blastocystis is only rarely eradicated by metronidazole alone, and indeed, the article does not provide data on post-treatment stool examination to see whether Blastocystis was still there. I think there is a chance that Blastocystis was an incidental finding and that intestinal symptoms in this case were due to Schistosoma. Given our recent data and improved diagnostic techniques, Blastocystis will more often now than ever become an incidental finding on routine analysis of faecal samples.

There is a paper by Fletcher and colleagues coming out in Journal of Public Health Research studying the prevalence and geographical distribution of enteric protozoan infections in Sydney, Australia, which I haven't had a chance to study in detail. I just want to emphasize that this study found Blastocystis prevalence to be increasing by age, a finding adding support to accumulating data suggesting that Blastocystis is more common in adults than in children, which is interesting from a clinical, epidemiological, and ecological point of view.

Hope to be able to address an interesting and brand new paper on Blastocystis treatment in Faculty of 1000 very soon. 

Happy Halloween!

References:

Fletcher S, Caprarelli G, Merif J, Andresen D, Hal SV, Stark D, & Ellis J (2014). Epidemiology and geographical distribution of enteric protozoan infections in Sydney, Australia. Journal of Public Health Research, 3 (2) PMID: 25343139

Nagel R, Bielefeldt-Ohmann H, & Traub R (2014). Clinical pilot study: efficacy of triple antibiotic therapy in Blastocystis positive irritable bowel syndrome patients. Gut Pathogens, 6 PMID: 25349629

Nowack EC, & Melkonian M (2010). Endosymbiotic associations within protists. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 365 (1541), 699-712 PMID: 20124339

Prodeus TV, Zelia OP, Khlebnikova TA, & Pikul' DA (2014). [Extraenteric infection caused by Blastocystis spp. in a female patient with liver abscess]. Meditsinskaia Parazitologiia i Parazitarnye Bolezni (2), 6-9 PMID: 25296418

Young CR & Yeo FE (In Press). Blastocystis and Schistosomiasis coinfection in a patient with chronic kidney disease. Case Reports in Medicine http://www.hindawi.com/journals/crim/2014/676395/ 

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 www.blastomeeting.com 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.

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.

References:

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Announcement of The 1st International Blastocystis Symposium

It is a pleasure for me to be able to announce that Dr. Funda Dogruman-Al and I have started planning


'The 1st International Blastocystis Symposium' 

to be held in Ankara, May 28-29 in 2015 under the auspices of Gazi University, Faculty of Medicine, Ankara, Turkey.

We have received very positive responses so far from quite a few of the leading scientists in Blastocystis research expressing their interest in the symposium, and obviously our goal is to be able to raise significant and relevant funding to cover at least some of the expenses related to the meeting. Already, a total of € 6,000 has been raised, but we hope for a lot more.

It may seem like a long time ahead, but we believe that by starting this early, we should stand a fair chance of arranging and completing a meeting that will enable a strengthening of global cooperative networks so as to increase the sharing of ideas, data, expertise, and best practices in this field to the mutual benefit of the researchers and organisations involved. 

The past few years have seen a substantial surge in Blastocystis research in many areas, and so the main foci of this symposium will be:
  • Diagnosis and molecular characterisation
  • Epidemiology
  • Evolutionary biology and advances in genomics
  • Intestinal ecology
  • Clinical significance including potential relationship to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
The symposium will also serve as an initial forum to address and discuss critical questions including: 
  • What is the evidence of Blastocystis pathogenicity?
  • If Blastocystis may be pathogenic, what then are the factors involved? Which mechanisms could potentially be involved in the development of disease?
  • Could specific host factors be responsible for the development of symptomatic Blastocystis infections, and if so, how can these be identified?
  • How can Blastocystis infections be controlled?
  • Is there any correlation between the human intestinal microbiota and Blastocystis carriage?
  • How can novel technology and multi-disciplinary approaches assist in answering fundamental questions concerning the clinical significance of Blastocystis?
We hope that the symposium will attract not only experts on Blastocystis, but also biologists and medical doctors in the fields of clinical microbiology, infectious diseases, gastroenterology, evolutionary biology, and microbial ecology. Certainly, those who have expressed interest so far cover a wide spectrum of these research areas.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014 Prospects

Happy New Year!

So, what's in store for us in 2014?

Difficult to say, but as least I can try and say a little about what is going on in our lab. Firstly, we are trying to publish what we are think are very interesting data on how gut bacteria may select for Blastocystis colonisation, a hypothesis we have developed based on studies of metagenomic data.

We are also working with the assembly and annotation of mitochondrial and nuclear genomes in collaboration with our international colleagues; something that will definitely take a while, since we have so few people in our lab to do it (literally one-two persons) but oceans of data (!!) - it's a pity that we cannot speed this up, since genomes are expected to hold keys to some of the great gates of Blastocystis enlightenment. Of course, a constant aim is to attract funding that can help us employ one or more PhD students/post docs interested in genomics and parasites. As always, I encourage my readers to come up with suggestions for funding.

Funding-wise we are also going to try and establish a Marie Curie ITN-network on the roles of intestinal microbial eukaryotes in health and disease and we are also awaiting decisions on other applications; hopefully, we will get some money for gut microbiome and immunological host profiling in experimental animals challenged with Blastocytis cysts. There may also be some work in our lab dealing with the impact of Blastocystis on bacterial communities in in-vitro studies.

Epidemiological data are produced as we speak; luckily, quite a few colleagues in different parts of the world are taking an interest in characterisation of Blastocystis in various cohorts so that we will know more about its epidemiology.

Those are the seminal things. Of course, there will be some exciting conferences, which I've mentioned before, and I'm also looking forward to putting together a Blastocystis review.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Blastocystis Highlights 2013

For decades man has striven to improve sanitation and protect production animals and crops from infectious agents to prevent diseases in humans, animals and plants. We tend to eat highly processed foods and many children grow up in almost sterile surroundings, for instance without contact to animals. Consequently, in developed parts of the world we are much less exposed to microorganisms and helminths than previously, and the extensive use of antibiotics for prevention, treatment and control of microorganisms is well-known.

As we are now starting to get a much deeper understanding of the role of the human microbiome (whatever that is) in health and disease, we become aware that microbes are to a large extent beneficial to us; for instance we are currently realising that human health is more or less proportional to intestinal biodiversity, including colonisation by parasites. I have previously mentioned the intentional use of eggs of the parasite Trichuris suis to alleviate symptoms and maybe even reduce disease processes in inflammatory bowel disease, a disorder seemingly stemming from immunological processes out of balance. Also in the food sector, steps may now be taken to diminish breeding and gene manipulation to increase crop yield; instead manipulation of microbes (e.g endophytes) may be used to makes crops hardier. Using microbes to combat other microbes and disease processes, thereby reducing the use of antibiotics and other chemical compounds will probably - and hopefully - be central to controlling diseases and increasing production yields.

For us in the 'Blasto business' these trends are particularly intriguing. I'm not the only one who just a couple of years ago thought that functional bowel disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to a large extent might be directly attributable to undiagnosed parasite infections (e.g. Blastocystis and Dientamoeba), something that could be supported by data going out from one of the studies that I carried out during my PhD studies. Over the years, however, we and other groups have produced data showing that patients with IBS are in fact significantly less colonised by the microbial eukaryotes Blastocystis and Dientamoeba than the healthy 'background' population (see this blog post). We also have access to metagenomic data that link the presence of these microbial eukaryotes with high bacterial diversity in the intestine, and I have colleagues confirming that patients suffering post infectious IBS-like symptoms do practically not harbour these parasites. Our hypothesis now is that - generally speaking - Blastocystis and Dientamoeba are proxies for high intestinal microbial diversity and thereby for a healthy gut ecology. This does of course not rule out the possibility of pathogenic strains/subtypes/whatever of microbial eukaryotes, and we are currently increasing our efforts to investigate whether these organisms can cause disease directly or indirectly, - I'll post a few lines on some of the work we have in mind for 2014 in my next post. I believe that one of the things that most Blastocystis researchers are interested in currently, is to increase our knowledge on the diversity and biological characteristics of mitochondrial and nuclear genomes.

It takes time to produce, analyse and interpret genomic data on Blastocystis, simply because we have so little money that can be allocated to PhD students and post docs. Although we try hard to get funding, we only have one PhD student working with Blastocystis genome data... I could have wished for at least one more. One year ago, I thought that 2013 would see at least one more Blastocystis genome paper, but so far, only very little data have emerged and only included in conference abstracts. But so far it appears that the genetic universe of Blastocystis is even bigger than most of us may have thought! To get a very preliminary impression of their data and how much ST1 differs from ST7 (currently the only available genome), you may want to visit a previous blog post. This basically means that even though we know about genes present and expressed by one subtype, the situation may be completely different for other subtypes! Very interesting, but it also means that a lot of work remains to get a clear picture of what Blastocystis actually does and is capable of doing.

This year was also the year where three seminal papers came out from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, all of them first authored by Dr Mohammed Alfellani, who did a magnificent job collecting, culturing and 'DNA extracting' samples from both humans, non-human primates, and other animals from various geographic regions. I have already given numerous examples of his findings. Dr Alfellani identified new subtypes, and did a great job in identifying remarkable variations in the geographical distribution of subtypes in both humans and animals. There are also some useful tables in Alfellani's papers showing overviews of molecular data produced by him and our colleagues. We definitely hope that his papers will stimulate other colleagues to pursuing the epidemiology of Blastocystis and should definitely hold some useful tools for those who are new to Blastocystis epidemiology research. 

I had the pleasure to write up a paper to Trends in Parasitology together with Dr Pauline Scanlan. The paper was free for download in November, and we received quite a lot of positive feedback, so thank you all who are so supportive of the work! It was also very rewarding to put together a review for Advances in Parasitology together with Drs Alfellani, van der Giezen and Clark on 'Recent Developments in Blastocystis Research'.

2013 was also the year where my SSI colleagues and I published a comment in the ISME Journal on how impatiently we are awaiting data on the human 'eukaryotic' microbiome. To map the microbial eukaryotes of the intestine and to try and characterise their structure and function and the intestinal ecology that accompany these organisms are activities that should receive top priority in my opinion. There is a link to the comment here.

Congress-wise, I experienced my first-time-ever Blastocystis session at a conference! It was at the merged meeting arranged by the Scandinavian-Baltic Society for Parasitology and the European Society for Tropical Medicine & International Health. Next year, I will be involved in the session 'Passion for Parasites' at the general ASM 2014 meeting in Boston (morning session,18th of May 2014), where I'll be giving a talk on Blastocystis, and, later next year, I will also be leading a lecture/workshop associated with the ICOPA conference in Mexico on Blastocystis barcoding, - I hope to see a few upcoming Blastocystis geeks there!

I don't think we have ever had better opportunities to do significant research on Blastocystis. More and more people are working with it, our epidemiological data have become a lot stronger, enabling more subtle hypotheses, lots of strains have been sequenced, we have developed protocols for experimental in-vitro and in-vivo studies, so here's to hoping for a vast increase in funding and work in 2014!

Attaching an image of the Nutcracker display currently adorning the facade of the Hotel d'Angleterre in Copenhagen, I wish all of the readers of this blog a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!



Literature:

Nicola Jones (2013). Food fuelled with fungi. Nature, 504 DOI: 10.1038/504199a

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Molecular Epidemiology: Developing a Language

Initiatives towards standardising diagnostic methods and convening on taxonomy and reference data is extremely important in a world where multiple research teams independently carry out research using molecular markers to identify and differentiate species and genotypes of infectious organisms; such activity is crucial to identify patterns of transmission, differences in virulence, and opportunities for control and intervention. Without such standards, efforts to survey and surveil such organisms would be more or less futile, and so they are the backbone of molecular epidemiology.

Having seen that a variety of morphologically similar but genetically diverse Blastocystis organisms found in humans could in fact colonise a range of different hosts, we realised back in 2006 that all these variants could not all be 'Blastocystis hominis', which was then the species name used for Blastocystis found in humans, and together with colleagues we took to revisiting Blastocystis terminology: We recognised that we did not know enough about host specificity and genetic diversity to be able to come up with relevant species names, and so we invented (or maybe not invented, but at least 'formalised') the subtype system, a sort of a barcode system, where genetically similar (typically 98-100%) organisms are assigned to the same subtype, hence ST1, ST2, ST3, etc., which we today now know so well.

Slapeta now suggests a barcoding system for Cryptosporidium. This single-celled parasite takes a major toll on the health of infants and toddlers in developing countries (in some places surpassed only by norovirus), and may also cause debilitating disease in immunocompromised. The nomenclature for Cryptosporidium is very complicated for those of us who are not experts; for instance, I only recently realised that C. parvum may now only refer to the Mouse I genotype and not the 'common' or 'traditional' C. parvum (which now appears to be C. pestis), which is common in both humans and cattle. However, there is a debate going on as to which taxonomy should be followed, and whether this novel leap in 'Cryptosporidium taxonomy revision' can be endorsed by Slapeta's fellow Crypto experts, remains to be seen. Contentiousness aside, barcoding Cryptosporidium does seem relevant due to the fact that the host specificity of Cryptosporidium is relatively loose; for instance humans and cattle are known to share at least 9 species of Cryptosporidium... 

In his paper, Jan Slapeta lists all the known species of Cryptosporidium (in the 'revised' terminology), and even includes GenBank reference strains for common molecular markers such as actin, HSP70 and COWP1 used for genotyping. Interestingly, he does not include the GP60 marker, a molecular marker for which the terminology is also discordant.

Slapeta moreover includes a file with reference SSU rDNA sequences that enable a standardisation of genetic analyses. This year, we did in fact a similar thing for Blastocystis: Along with our 2013 Protist paper surveying Blastocystis subtypes in animals (including the identification of a couple of new subtypes!), we uploaded a reference alignment consisting of some complete SSU rRNA gene sequences present in GenBank; one or more for each of the now known 17 subtypes; more will be added as more subtypes are discovered. The file can be downloaded when accessing the online version of the paper, and we hope that everyone interested in analysing sequences that represent potentially novel subtypes will use this reference alignment (which has been edited to eliminate regions of ambiguous base alignment); it should be quite helpful. Again, I also bring your attention to the pubmlst Blastocystis database, where fast files obtained by Blastocystis barcoding can be queried in batches for quick analysis of large amounts of sequence data. There's a Youtube video here on Blastocystis barcoding and how to use the pubmlst database.

Consensus on methods, terminology and diagnostic algorithms is essential to developing a common language and understanding of how infectious organisms impact our lives; without it,  confusion wreaks havoc with our efforts.

Literature:

Alfellani MA, Taner-Mulla D, Jacob AS, Imeede CA, Yoshikawa H, Stensvold CR, & Clark CG (2013). Genetic diversity of Blastocystis in livestock and zoo animals. Protist, 164 (4), 497-509 PMID: 23770574

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