"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

December 31, 2011

Chipping away at the tip of the iceberg

Through out 2011, we have been featuring more weird and wonderful parasites as we have done in 2010, but on top of that we have also been featuring some of the latest pieces of research being published on all manners of parasitic and infectious organisms which may not have been covered elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Just this year we saw a molecular study that revealed the transmission pathway of a great white shark tapeworm via dolphin blubber, a koala blood parasite named after Steve Irwin, a nematode which infiltrate pine trees via borrowed genes from fungi, a parasitic plant which disperse its seeds via beetles, and a little digenean fluke which changed the face of an entire mudflat, just to name a handful out of dozens that we have featured.

So in 2011, we have gone beyond merely showing you the parasites, but also told you about the research which are being conducted behind the scene to work out how they live. At the same time, you also got a bit of insight into the scientific process, and how knowledge accumulate and grow over time.

In 2012, we will continue to bring you new and exciting research on parasites and parasitism - publications which we found interesting but might not have received their share of fanfare and press releases (as I type this up, I have at least another 4 paper waiting in line to write up. And no doubt I'll find another 4 to write about by the time I'm done with those).

Of course, research on a particular host-parasite system does not simply enter suspended animation after a single study has been published. For many lab groups, the parasite we have featured on this blog form the basis of their scientific research, and the newly published paper we have chosen to feature here merely represents a thin cross-section of their ongoing research program. So in 2012 we might also be revisiting some of the parasites that we have previously featured on the blog, and fill you in on the latest updates as they hit the press.

Of course, you can now also find us on other forms of social media where we will be posting about updates to the blog. Susan is on Twitter , and you can find myself on Google Plus.

Here's to another year of parasitism - the most common way of life on this planet!

December 17, 2011

Hematodinium sp.

Today's parasite, Hematodinium sp., infects blue crabs and causes a disease known as "bitter crab". While the name may sound just slightly nauseating for your palate, for the afflicted crabs, its symptom is down right horrific. The parasite causes the crab's hepatopancreas (equivalent of our liver and pancreas) to malfunction, it starts suffocating, and its muscles eventually dissolve within its exoskeleton. Crabs that are experimentally infected start dying about 2 weeks after initial exposure, and this deadly parasite may have even contributed to the recent decline of blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay.

Hematodinium and related species are dinoflagellates, and while most dinoflagellate are free-living, this species belongs to a group which have evolved to be parasites, with many different species infecting a wide variety of hosts. While several different stages of the parasite have been isolated from the blood of infected crabs, little is known about how they are transmitted between hosts, nor the inner life of those different stages in the hosts. Because many parasites live enclosed within the body of their hosts, it is almost impossible to directly observe how they live and grow the way you might be able to observe a fish or a bird. Ideally, if you can isolate a parasite out of its host, put in it a clear container which closely mimics the conditions found within its host, and still have it complete its life-cycle, then you can find out a lot more about how it lives.

Recently, a group of researchers from Virginia were able to successfully complete the life-cycle of Hematodinium - in vitro - which means they were able to grow it in a culture of chemical broth that sustained the parasite's every need, without any host animals involved. This was accomplished through a painstaking series of transfers, starting with isolating the parasite from infected crabs, then moving each stage into different culture mixes as it grew, all while keeping the conditions as sterile as possible. Out of the 10 isolates they attempted to grow, only 4 successfully completed their life-cycle in vitro. The researchers also found out that the parasite grows best in the dark, and indeed light exposure kills them within weeks, which makes sense given that it is pretty dark inside a crab (a variation on the Marx Brother joke).

Through this in vitro technique, they were able observe the different parasitic stages of Hematodinium directly, and view them as they would have been while floating in the blood and organs of a blue crab. They noted that when Hematodinium cells first enter the crab as "dinospores," they turn into a worm-shaped form called a "filamentous trophont" (see the accompanying photo which was from a figure in the paper). About a month after that, the cells begin transforming into clumps that are composed of multiple clones of the original infection stage. These clumps then grow into a stage called an "arachnoid trophont," which resembles a blob with numerous tendrils around its fringe (which would be embedded in the hepatopancreas of the crab). These clumps tend to merge and form larger blobs as they come into contact with each other. When those "arachnoid trophonts" fully develop, the cells in the middle of the blob start producing spores that eventually turn into the infective dinospores that escape from the crab to infect new hosts, starting the life-cycle anew.

Li, C., Miller, T.L., Small, H.J. and Shields, J.D. (2011) In vitro culture and developmental cycle of the parasitic dinoflagellate Hematodinium sp. from the blue crab Callinectes sapidus. Parasitology 138:1924-1934.

Postscript: Three days after this post went up, I was contacted by Peter Coffey, who used to work on this species of parasite with a bit of additional information/correction: I just have one quick comment on the first sentence in your post. In blue crabs we don't see the same bitter flavor that we do in Alaskan Tanner and Snow Crabs, so we haven't been calling infections in blue crabs BCD.
Thanks Peter!

December 8, 2011

Lepeophtheirus acutus

Today, we are featuring a paper which reported on a grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) at Burger's Zoo in the Netherlands that had to be euthanized. "Wait a sec!" you think, "Isn't this supposed to be a blog about parasites? I didn't come here for dead sharks!" Well, just calm down before you close your browser tab in outrage. This particular shark actually succumbed due to a heavy infection of today's parasite - Lepeophtheirus acutus. This parasite is in the same genus as other fish lice that we have previously featured on this blog, but very little is known about this particular species. Prior to this incident, it has only been reported once from the wild, and it was found on the back of a ribbon-tailed stingray (Taeniura lymma), not a shark and certainly nothing was known about how harmful it can be to its host.

From what the staff at the aquarium could work out, this deadly little crustacean was introduced to the facility by an infected male zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum) collected off Cairns, Australia on the Great Barrier Reef, which appeared perfectly healthy at the time and passed quarantine. However, about 2 weeks after he was introduced into the aquaria with the other fishes, he started acting weird. At the same time, the grey reef shark mentioned at the start of this post became lethargic and ceased to eat regularly, and about a month after that, both sharks were afflicted with swollen and opaque eyes. Despite the best efforts of the staff to put the infected sharks in quarantine, filter the water with activated carbon, and give them anti-parasite drugs, they were unable to save the grey reef shark, by which time it was swimming with its mouth wide open, not eating at all, and its eyes had deteriorated even further, so the decision was made to euthanize the long-suffering shark.

A necropsy revealed the identity of the killer - a parasitic copepod - most of which were found around the shark's eyes which caused them to become swollen and covered in mucus, and the mouth which led to bleeding gums. The parasite was also found on a female zebra shark and a shovelnose ray (Glaucostegus typus) which shared the aquaria with the deceased grey reef shark. Notably, the blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) which swam in the same water alongside those infected sharks did not become infected, nor did the many different species bony fishes sharing the same tanks and water. This indicates that L. acutus does display some selectivity in the type of host it infects, with a particular preference for elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), and even then only certain species within that group.

Other than the dead grey reef shark, the other infected sharks survived and recovered fully after treatment. However, this incident shows how outbreaks of infectious diseases can be a big problem for animals in the confined conditions of captivity. In the case of L. acutus, its small size, semi-transparent body, its tendency to infect parts of the host that are difficult to inspect (for example, inside the mouth), and the fact that nothing is know about its ecology meant that the staff had not anticipated such an outbreak. It was the first documented case of infection by a parasitic copepod that led to a shark dying in captivity. This case also illustrates the importance of thorough quarantine procedures, especially when introducing new animals into any facility, as captive conditions can seriously alter the transmission dynamics and pathology of relatively harmless parasites.

Image from figure in the paper.

Kik, M.J.L., Janse, M., Benz, G.W. (2011) The sea louse Lepeophtheirus acutus (Caligidae, Siphonostomatoida, Copepoda) as a pathogen of aquarium-held elasmobranchs. Journal of Fish Diseases 34: 793-799,

December 1, 2011

Rhinanthus minor

Many parasites can have substantial effects on their hosts, but their impact can often extend to other organisms in the environment. Today's parasite is one of the more pretty-looking ones which we have featured in a while - as opposed to the usual worms and lice, today we are featuring a flowering plant - the yellow rattle. But don't let its pretty yellow flowers fool you, Rhinanthus minor is a ruthless parasite.

It is a hemiparasite (like the mistletoe , which becomes rather popular during this time of the year). The plant overwinters as seed in the soil and germinates during spring, penetrating into the roots of its host plants where it can suck out nutrients and water from the plant's xylem tissue. The yellow rattle is a fast growing plant - it flowers 12 weeks after germination and 3 weeks after that it produces seeds that are loosely held in dry capsules, which gives the plant its name. The yellow rattle often share its host plants with a range of insects, so a group of researchers in the UK decided to look at how this hemiparasite can affect those insects. Specifically, they looked at the effects of R. minor on insects that exploit plants in different ways; the aphid that feeds on the sugary sap flowing in the plant's phloem, the spittle bug, which taps into the xylem that transports water and other nutrients, and the grasshopper, which simply chews on leaves.

The researchers predicted that over the course of its growth, the yellow rattle would affect those insects differently. They were expecting that it would negatively impact on the spittle bug, because that insect and the hemiparasite both draw their nutrients from the host's xylem. But as is often the case in science, they found something unexpected.

First of all, they found that the effect R. minor had on those insects depended upon the parasite's growth stage, and it becomes most pronounced when the yellow rattle reaches its peak biomass and begins setting seeds. However in contrast to what they were expecting, spittle bugs actually preferred plants parasitised by R. minor. But the insect that benefited the most from the hemiparasite's presence were the aphids. Not only did they prefer sharing a host plant with the yellow rattle (there were three times as many aphids on plants with R. minor compared to uninfected plants), they also tend to breed more on infected plants. What about the grasshoppers? Grasshoppers were not all that affected by the presence of the yellow rattle either way.

The mechanism behind why the yellow rattle makes its host more attractive to plant-feeding insects is currently unknown. However, it may have something to do with the hemiparasite altering the water content of the host plant, or changing the composition of the phloem sap, which makes it more nutritious to aphids. Either way, it seems that at least for some insects, sharing a plant with a hemiparasite might actually be a good thing.

Image from the Wikipedia.

Ewald, N.C., John, E.A. and Hartley, S. (2011) Responses of insect herbivores to sharing a host plant with a hemiparasite: impacts on preference and performance differe with feeding guild. Ecological Entomology 36: 596-604.