Friday, June 21, 2013

This Month In Blastocystis Research (JUN 2013)

Another paper in the string of publications coming out from the PhD study by Dr Alfellani (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) has just appeared in PubMed.

Dr Alfellani and his colleagues have done a great job in analysing a multitude of samples from humans, non-human primates and animals; I have previously blogged about their observations from studies of human and non-human primates. Moreover, they have surveyed available data in order to better discuss their own findings, and the work has contributed significantly to what today is known about the host specificity, genetic diversity, phylogeography and general molecular epidemiology of Blastocystis.

Alfellani's most recent paper is published in the journal Protist, and it deals with the 'Genetic Diversity of Blastocystis in Livestock and Zoo Animals'.

It is quite a large paper which includes a lot of new information and a comprehensive (and hopefully exhaustive) table summarising Blastocystis subtype data in all relevant hosts (humans, non-human primates, other mammals and birds).

I will highlight a couple of things from the paper:

1. Apart from reporting on virtually complete SSU rDNA sequences from a couple of subtypes for which entire SSU rDNA sequences have yet not been available, we also report on three novel subtypes. Until recently, we only knew about 14 subtypes (ST1-ST14), of which ST1-ST9 can be found in humans. Now, three additional subtypes have been identified; ST15 in artiodactyls (camel and sheep) and non-human primates (chimpanzee and gibbon), ST16 in kangaroos, and ST17 in gundis.

The Gundi (Ctenodactylus gundi) is a rodent living mainly in the deserts of Northern Africa. (Source)

2. Novel data arising from analysis of faecal samples from humans and animals in Sebha, Libya, strongly indicate that humans and animals in this area are infected by different subtypes: Humans appear to carry ST1, ST2, and ST3, while synanthropic animals (artiodactyls in this case) mostly have ST5 and ST10 infections, suggesting that livestock is not a major contributor to human Blastocystis infection.

To this end, there is growing evidence of quite a substantial degree of host specificity of Blastocystis.  Even when subtypes overlap between humans and animals, we have accumulating evidence that the strains found in humans and animals are different. This means that the hypothesis that animals constitute an important reservoir of human Blastocystis infections currently has very limited support. It is my clear impression that when a strain of ST6 or ST8 is detected in humans, this strain has most probably been transmitted from an animal source. But we very rarely see these subtypes in humans, at least in Europeans.

It will be extremely interesting to see how the universe of Blastocystis subtypes unfolds... by genetically characterising strains in humans and non-human hosts, we are building up a clearer picture of transmission patterns and evolutionary biology, including our adaptation to Blastocystis, and the parasite's adaptation to us and other hosts.

It is noteworthy that we are starting to see different subtypes in rodents. We have previously thought that generally, rodents were infected by ST4. But now we know that many rodents are not infected, and we also know that rodents may harbour subtypes other than ST4.

So,17 subtypes of Blastocystis are now known. We have probably only seen the top of the iceberg, since many host species have not yet been sampled from, and it is likely that we will see quite a few STs being identified in the nearest future. To this end it is necessary to have a consensus regarding the identification of novel subtypes. Along with the Protist paper we have uploaded a supplementary file (Appendix A, TXT format) with aligned reference sequences that can be used for phylogenetic analysis,  hoping that it will be useful to our colleagues. In a future blog post I will try to address the issues of identifying new subtypes more specifically.

ST15 is one of the more interesting subtypes since it appears to have quite a low host specificity - infecting both non-human primates and artiodactyls. Yet, we have come across it only now. ST15 and ST17 are remarkable in the way that they appear to be closer related to herptile and arthropod lineages, respectively, than to lineages from mammals.

Please note that virtually complete sequences of ST10, ST13, ST14, ST15, and ST17 analysed in the study have been released in GenBank just now.

Further reading:

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

Alfellani MA, Stensvold CR, Vidal-Lapiedra A, Onuoha ES, Fagbenro-Beyioku AF, & Clark CG (2013). Variable geographic distribution of Blastocystis subtypes and its potential implications. Acta Tropica, 126 (1), 11-8 PMID: 23290980

Alfellani MA, Jacob AS, Perea NO, Krecek RC, Taner-Mulla D, Verweij JJ, Levecke B, Tannich E, Clark CG, & Stensvold CR (2013). Diversity and distribution of Blastocystis sp. subtypes in non-human primates. Parasitology, 140 (8), 966-71 PMID: 23561720

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Blastocystis - 'Monsters Inside Me'

I woke up this morning, grabbed my smartphone and went on to check my Blastocystis Google Alert. There was one entry, and this was the one:

Now, I could probably do a post with hundreds of examples showing how the internet abounds with material that may misguide/misinform people on Blastocystis pathogenicity. As such, this video is a nice example of how you can diligently manipulate people into thinking that severe, debilitating disease can be caused by Blastocystis.

Now, before I move on, I have to say that if this is a documentary, I'm very sorry for the couple in this video who have suffered the pain and consequences of sudden debilitating illness. Precautions have to be taken when you are exposed to sewage to avoid contracting infections.

The symptoms that are described in the video - including the weight loss - could be attributable to many different bacterial and viral pathogens, even parasites such as Cryptosporidium and maybe also Giardia; to this end, the video provides us with no information on other pathogens found in the patient's stool. Even in the event that Blastocystis was the only potential pathogen found, other pathogens may have been overlooked if sensitive diagnostics were not taken into use.

It is possible that Bill Wilson contracted Blastocystis only after signing on to his plumbing contract, but it is also possible that he had it a long time before. Many of us (up to 30% of the healthy Danish population) are colonised, and colonisation is often chronic.

We are informed that the patient receives a course of metronidazole, a drug that is often used to treat Blastocystis, but which in fact has a limited efficacy in vivo when used alone. Bill apparently clears his symptoms after metronidazole treatment, but we do not know whether in fact Bill also clears his Blastocystis infection, which could be determined by post-treatment stool tests. Metronidazole is capable of clearing a large number of anaerobic bacterial and protozoan species, and it is not unlikely that the drug has eradicated one or more pathogens that Bill could have contracted during his work (or elsewhere), and so symptom relief may be due to clearance of a non-Blastocystis pathogen instead.

Finally, it may be so that symptom disappearance coincides with spontaneous pathogen resolution. Cryptosporidiosis, for instance, can cause quite debilitating disease even in immunocompetent individuals, causing the infected individuals to lose a lot of water due to diarrhoea lasting for days or even weeks, but the disease is usually self-limiting.

So, this video tells a story that makes the audience automatically think that Bill Wilson's disease is due to Blastocystis. Apart from the statement 'Complications from a Blastocystis hominis infection can be fatal' and the explanation of how metronidazole works on Blastocystis, there is not really any statements or information in the video that do not make sense; the video is just put together in a way so that the viewer automatically deduces that Blastocystis is the culprit. A diligent act of manipulation!

Please note that this post is about how information on Blastocystis can be conveyed to an audience and not about the particular case as such.


Stensvold CR, Smith HV, Nagel R, Olsen KE, & Traub RJ (2010). Eradication of Blastocystis carriage with antimicrobials: reality or delusion? Journal of clinical gastroenterology, 44 (2), 85-90 PMID: 19834337