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Scientists Trace Toxoplasma Parasite’s Family Tree

Benjamin Rosenthal searches for microscopic parasite cysts while technician Detiger Dunams inspects variation in the length of PCR-amplified parasite genes.

(Photo by Stephen Ausmus)

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Agricultural Research Service scientist Ben Rosenthal and his team made a recent discovery in the diversity in parasites related to Toxoplasma gondii, one of the most widespread parasites of warm-blooded vertebrates.

Understanding how T. gondii has evolved and spread will help parasitologists and public health officials improve methods for controlling the parasite in humans and animals.

Rosenthal, a zoologist at the ARS Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., partnered with ARS microbiologist Jitender Dubey and biologist David Sibley at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine to analyze DNA snippets from 46 existing T. gondii strains found around the planet.

The team’s research pinpoints evolutionary changes in one parasite chromosome which have been especially widespread, he said, and which may be contributing to the parasite’s transmission success. Although he said that pet owners cannot yet “do anything” with the discovery, these findings have narrowed the search for a gene, or suite of genes, which may be especially important for the parasite.

“Further study may find an ‘Achilles heel,’ leading to new strategies for better control,” he said.

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