A few years ago, rainbow trout at a trout farm in the Shiga prefecture, Japan, were being struck down by a mysterious illness. The flesh of the dead fish were speckled with red dots and white cysts. It turns out the disease was caused by a type of previously unknown microsporidian parasite. Microsporidians have been reported from other farmed fish in Japan, where they are locally called "beko disease". It was suspected that the trout might be getting infected from their food, and during feeding trials it was found that trout fed with fresh or chilled prawns developed the disease, while those fed frozen prawns stayed healthy. This shows that prawns were somehow involved in the life cycle of this parasite.
|Left: Prawn infected with Indosporus fujiokai (indicated by red arrow), Centre: Electron microscopy of spores from muscles of an infected prawn (top), and a spore from the muscles of an infected trout (bottom). Right: An infected trout showing signs of hypoxia associated with infection by I. fujiokai (top), muscles of infected trout with red specks and white cysts of the parasite as indicated by arrows (bottom).
Photos of prawns + spores from Fig. 1, 7, and 9 of the paper, Photos of infected trout + their flesh from Fig. 3 and 6 of this paper
Microsporidians are single-celled parasites which are related to fungi. There are 1500 known species, though the actual number of microsporidians out there is likely to be much higher. For most of them, relatively little is known aside from how they look like and what they infect. About half of all known microsporidians are parasites of aquatic animals (and their parasites), and their life cycles can vary considerably between different species. Despite their importance as parasites of fish and crustaceans in aquaculture, the life cycles of many microsporidians are unknown.
In the study featured in this blog post, researchers set out to find samples of the Shiga trout farm parasite out in the wild - and they found it amidst some prawns from Lake Biwa. Microsporidian-infected prawns are easy to spot because in contrast to healthy prawns which are translucent, infected prawns become opaque white as the parasite proliferates in their muscles. But surprisingly, despite the numerous spores filling up their flesh, infected prawns seemed rather healthy and were able to live for several weeks in the lab. Some of them even managed to produce eggs despite being parasitised! This is in stark contrast to the effect that this parasite has on its trout hosts.
The researchers named this microsporidian Indosporus fujiokai - after a parasitologist who, back in 1982, suggested the involvement of prawns in the transmission of microsporidian parasites. But that is not the entire story, because those prawns were harbouring a lot more than just I. fujiokai. The researchers actually found FOUR different types of microsporidians in those prawns, including the one that they eventually named Indosporus fujiokai. These microsporidians all differ in their spore sizes and shapes, and all of them were entirely new to science. Three of the microsporidians, including I. fujiokai, belong to a group called "Marinosporidia'' which are usually found infecting fish and aquatic invertebrates - this was to be expected since they were examining prawns. However, one of the microsporidians was more unusual, as it hails from an entirely different part of the microsporidian tree called "Terresporidia", which is composed of species that usually infect insects.
The results of this study suggests that prawns and other crustaceans could be harbouring a rich array of microsporidian parasites that are currently unknown to science, and there might be many more of them out there which are infecting fish by the way of crustacean hosts. While the researchers in this study were able to resolve the life cycle for I. fujiokai, mysteries continue to surround the life cycles of the three other microsporidians that they found - what hosts they might infect in the next stage of their respective life cycles are anyone's guess at this point.
As is often the case with parasites, just as you manage to answer one question, three (or more) others pop up in the process. So if life gives you a raw prawn, you should examine it for parasites.