"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

February 18, 2020

Henneguya aegea

Aquaculture is currently one of the world's fastest growing food-production industry, with about half of all the fish being eaten around the world coming from fish farms. There are about 580 species which are currently raised in aquaculture, and each species also comes with a set of ecological concerns, such as whether they are sustainable, or if they are being farmed outside of their natural ranges, whether they might escape and become invasive. And of course, there is always the looming concern of an introduced aquaculture species bringing along or picking up parasites

The red sea bream (Pagrus major) is a species of porgy that is being farmed in the Mediterranean region. It is native to Northwest Pacific, but was introduced to the Mediterranean as a supplemental aquaculture species. While the Mediterranean Sea has its own local species of porgies such as the gilthead seabream (Sparus aurata) and red porgy (Pagrus pagrus), which are both fine aquaculture species and highly-regarded food fishes, the skin of farmed red porgy darkens after capture, and consumers expect and prefer fish with bright red skin. And so the red sea bream was imported to supplement the Mediterranean aquaculture industry. But with new fish also comes new problems.

Top left: SEM micrograph of H. aegea spores from infected fish's heart, Bottom left: Close-up of the spores.
Right: Light microscope view of the mature spores (photos above from Fig. 2 and 3 of the paper)
The study being featured in this post was carried out at a red sea bream farm at Leros, a Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea. The researchers randomly picked out twenty healthy-looking fish from a farm, and while all the fish they examined looked healthy enough and showed no obvious signs of illness, they found that the hearts of ten fish were filled with some kind of white nodules.

When examined under a microscope, the white nodules resolved into masses of tadpole-shaped, microscopic single-celled organisms, and it was clear to the researchers that they are dealing with some kind of myxosporean parasite, specifically in the Henneguya genus - but it was one that has never been described before. They named it H. aegea after the Aegean Sea where this discovery was made.

Myxosporeans are a group of parasite that infects mostly fish (with a few species infecting amphibians). Despite being single-celled, these parasites actually belongs in the Animal Kingdom, and are in the same phylum of animals as jellyfishes. In fact, the polar filament, which is used by the parasite during the infection process andserves as a diagnostic characteristic for this group, was evolutionarily derived from the the stinging cells found in animals like jellyfish and anenomes, but it has been revamped over the course of the myxosporean's evolution for a different purpose.

For the sea breams that were infected with H. aegea, while the infected fish looked relatively healthy, their hearts showed signs of stress and muscular degeneration, and were filled with numerous white nodules which were composed of developing parasite spores. The mature spores were disseminated throughout the fish's body via the circulatory system, and their passage through the blood vessels results in lesions to the blood vessel walls. Some of the spores will eventually find their way out of the fish's body to proceed to the next stage of the life cycle, but many of them end up in the fish's kidney, where they triggered an immune reaction and get enveloped by white blood cells.

So how did the farmed porgies ended up with these parasites? Did they bring the parasite with them when they were introduced to the Mediterranean, or did they pick up H. aegea in their new range? The red sea bream that are being farmed in the Mediterranean Sea had arrived as eggs from Japan during the 1980s, and thus when they arrived, they would be free of the kind of parasites which usually infect fish - including myxosporeans. So this means H. aegea is a local parasite which took a liking to this new and exotic hosts.

The concerning thing here is that the existence of this parasite was only discovered when it started infecting an introduced aquaculture species. So what is the original host for this parasite? Given that these parasites are usually fairly narrow in their host preference, one of the many local Mediterranean species of porgies would most likely to be its original host.

But now that H. aegea has another host species that it can infect, how does it change the situation for its original host species? With the introduced sea bream effectively acting as incubators that amplify the amount of H. aegea spores in the environment, it means the native host fish would be exposed to a far higher parasite load that what it has been used to. This is known in ecological parasitology as "parasite spillback".

So introducing parasite-free fish to a region doesn't mean that they will stay that way for long. And it seems that even when you start a new life at a new place and have left all your old troubles behind, sometimes you might just pick up new ones, and end up causing more problems along the way.

Katharios, P., et al. (2020). Native parasite affecting an introduced host in aquaculture: cardiac henneguyosis in the red seabream Pagrus major Temminck & Schlegel (Perciformes: Sparidae) caused by Henneguya aegea n. sp.(Myxosporea: Myxobolidae). Parasites & Vectors 13: 27.