The latest Paper of the Month from Parasitology is ‘Genetic diversity of Blastocystis in non-primate animals’ by Emma L. Betts, Eleni Gentekaki, Adele Thomasz, et al.

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract harbors a vast amount of microbes collectively called the microbiome. These microbes include both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Most microbiome-related studies have focused on humans with only a few exploring the microbiome of other animals, mostly primates. Even so, only a handful of research investigations examine the eukaryotic residents of the gut. The eukaryome of non-primate animals remains largely uncharted and holds great research interest for investigators. This is because of the potential of such work to uncover novel and currently unculturable microbial eukaryotes. For example, the first organism with atypical mitochondria was previously collected from a fecal sample of a chinchilla. Gut eukaryotic microbes affect the quality of life of their hosts, but unlike the bacterial residents, their abundance, diversity and distribution is unexplored. For instance, currently, animal conservation and rehabilitation studies, strategies and policies do not take into account the microbial eukaryotes present in the gut of the animals involved.

Therefore, in this study we began examining the eukaryome of non-primate animals kept in captivity. During Dr. Eleni Gentekaki’s visit in Kent in the summer of 2016 (from Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand sponsored by the University of Kent’s Internalization Funds) we met with the education and conservation staff at Wildwood Trust in Herne Bay and collectively designed our sampling strategy. Wildwood Trust is a wildlife park not far from the University of Kent in Canterbury (UK). The park is involved in captive breeding and reintroduction schemes of a number of endangered species, such as hazel dormice, pine martens, red squirrels, water voles and Scottish wildcat. It was, therefore, the ideal place to start the journey of exploring the gut eukaryome. During our visit, we brought all the equipment necessary for sampling (tubes, media, slides), placed in a wheel barrow, and off we went around the park (Picture 1). Faecal collection is a non-invasive process, but for the purpose of our study, the faeces had to be as fresh as possible. You might be thinking, “how exactly do you get a fresh faecal sample? Do you have to wait around for the animal to do its business?” Indeed, that is exactly what we did. We would “glue” our eyes on the animal of interest, eagerly waiting for it to expel the “treasure”. Most of the time this strategy worked and we were able to trace individual faecal samples to specific individuals. Other times, we just had to rely on whether the “treasure” was warm enough indicating recent defecation. This involved “feeling” the temperature of the sample by placing our (gloved) hands in what many would describe as uncomfortable proximity. We were very enthusiastic, when we found fresh faeces, and dipped our hands in the “poop” with gusto (Picture 2). It was literally a “sh***” job.

Bringing the samples back to the lab, we looked at them under the microscope and noticed that Blastocystis was present in many samples. Thus we firstly focused on this abundant eukaryote, but several other eukaryotes are currently being explored. Molecular work and phylogenetic analyses revealed that Blastocystis was present in 41% of animal species. The presence of Blastocystis in elk, pine marten and water vole hosts has not been previously reported. One Blastocystis sequence is genetically different to all the other sequences of Blastocystis previously reported.

Hence, this work sets the foundation for future discoveries. We are currently monitoring and comparing microbial eukaryotes of animals living in their natural environment, captive animals and animals that have been recently reintroduced. We envision that this collaborative study between University of Kent and Wildwood Trust will pave the way for interventions and successful reintroduction strategies for some of these endangered species. It has led to the establishment of new biosecurity protocols at the Trust, following these findings, and thus providing a mutually beneficial partnership.

1. Emma Betts and Eleni Gentekaki marking the tubes containing freshly collected faecal samples 
2. Anastasios Tsaousis displaying palpable enthusiasm, while collecting bison’s faeces (picture kindly provided by Nicola Baker).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the full article ‘Genetic diversity of Blastocystis in non-primate animals’ in full for free until 3rd April 2018.

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