- Mycobacteriosis is a common disease of laboratory zebrafish (Danio rerio). Different infection patterns occur in zebrafish depending on mycobacterial species. Mycobacterium marinum and M. haemophilum produce virulent infections associated with high mortality, whereas M. chelonae is more wide spread and not associated with high mortality. Identification of mycobacterial infections to the species level provides important information for making management decisions. Observation of acid-fast bacilli in histological sections or tissue imprints is the most common diagnostic method for mycobacteriosis in fish, but only allows for diagnosis to the genus level. Mycobacterial culture, followed by molecular or biochemical identification is the traditional approach for species identification, but recently it has been shown that DNA of diagnostic value can be retrieved from paraffin blocks. Type of fixative, time in fixative before processing, species of mycobacteria, and severity of infection were investigated as parameters to determine if the hsp gene PCR assay (primer set HS5F/hsp667R) could detect and amplify mycobacterial DNA from paraffin-embedded zebrafish. Whole zebrafish were experimentally infected with either M. chelonae or M. marinum, and then preserved in 10% neutral buffered formalin or Dietrich's fixative for
3, 7, 21 and 45 days. Subsequently, fish were evaluated by H&E and Fite's acid-fast stains to detect mycobacteria within granulomatous lesions. The PCR assay was quite effective, and obtained PCR product from 75% and 88% of the M. chelonae and M. marinum infected fish, respectively. Fixative type, time in fixative, and mycobacterial species showed no statistical relationship with the efficacy of the PCR test.
Regarding natural transmission, zebrafish are capable of contracting mycobacterial infections by feeding on infected fish tissue, but other natural routes have not been clearly elucidated. Free living amoebae have been shown to be vectors for mycobacteria and their virulence is enhanced when residing in these protozoans. Paramecium caudatum are commonly used as a first food for zebrafish, and I investigated this ciliate's potential to serve as a vector of Mycobacterium marinum and M. chelonae. The ability of live P. caudatum to transmit these mycobacteria to larval, juvenile and adult zebrafish was evaluated. Infections were defined by histologic observation of granulomas containing acid-fast bacteria in extraintestinal locations. In both experiments, fish fed paramecia containing mycobacteria became infected at a higher incidence than controls. Larvae (exposed at 4 days post hatch) fed paramecia with M. marinum exhibited an incidence of 30% (24/80) and juveniles (exposed at 21 days post hatch) showed 31% incidence (14/45). Adult fish fed gelatin diets containing bacteria within paramecia or mycobacteria alone for 2 wk resulted in infections when examined 8 wk after exposure: M. marinum OSU 214; in paramecia 47% (21/45; 3.5 x 10⁵ dose/fish/day), M. marinum CH in paramecia 47% (9/19; 3.6 x 10⁵ dose/fish/day), M. chelonae in paramecia 38% (5/13; 3.5 x 10⁵ dose/fish/day).
I investigated the ability of mycobacteria to persist within paramecia, as this has previously been demonstrated in amoebae. Gram negative bacteria ingested by paramecia were processed within an hour. In contrast, I determined using GFP-labeled Mycobacterium marinum that mycobacteria can persist within paramecia digestive vacuoles. The concentration of M. marinum at 1 hour was similar to that at the time of ingestion. Twenty-four hours post-ingestion and later there was significant decline in M. marinum concentrations compared to time of ingestion, but M. marinum continued to persist inside digestive vacuoles for up to one week. My results demonstrate for the first time that Paramecium caudatum can act as a vector for mycobacteria. This provides a useful animal model for evaluation of natural mycobacterial infections and demonstrates the possibility of mycobacterial transmission in zebrafish facilities via contaminated paramecia cultures.