Exploring the Genetic Roots of Parasitism in Microscopic Organisms

Jenn Hoskins
6th May, 2024

Exploring the Genetic Roots of Parasitism in Microscopic Organisms

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Researchers at Uppsala University sequenced three new genomes of Ascetosporea, parasites affecting marine invertebrates
  • The study found these parasites have reduced genomes, similar to other parasites, suggesting a common evolutionary trend
  • The genomic data helps clarify the evolutionary history of Ascetosporea and their transition from free-living to parasitic lifestyles
Parasites have long been a subject of fascination and concern due to their ability to adapt and thrive within host organisms. Ascetosporea, a group of unicellular parasites infecting aquatic invertebrates, has recently garnered attention for its impact on marine invertebrate aquaculture, contributing to significant annual losses. Despite their ecological and economic importance, the molecular data on Ascetosporea have been sparse, with only two genome assemblies available until now. A recent study by researchers at Uppsala University[1] has made significant strides in understanding the evolutionary origins and genomic adaptations of these enigmatic parasites. The study involved sequencing and assembling three new ascetosporean genomes and the genome of a closely related amphizoic species. This work aimed to clarify the phylogenetic position of Ascetosporea and uncover the genomic changes associated with their shift from a free-living lifestyle to parasitism. Previous studies have shown that parasitic lifestyles have evolved hundreds of times across different lineages, leading to a convergence of traits and strategies for exploiting hosts[2]. These strategies include various forms of transmission and host manipulation, and despite the diversity of parasites, they tend to fall into only a few categories. The current research expands on this by investigating the genomic level of adaptation. For instance, microsporidia, a group of fungi-like parasites, have experienced extreme genome reduction, shedding many genes unnecessary for their parasitic lifestyle[3]. Similarly, the study of trypanosomatids, notorious for causing diseases like African sleeping sickness, revealed genome streamlining and the evolution of specialized protein families to adapt to parasitic life[4]. The Uppsala University study contributes to this body of work by providing new genomic data that can be compared with previously studied parasites. It helps bridge the gap in our understanding of how different parasitic strategies are reflected at the genomic level. The sequencing of the ascetosporean genomes offers insights into the genetic makeup of these parasites and the potential evolutionary paths they took. The research found evidence of genome reduction and compaction in Ascetosporea, similar to what has been observed in other parasites like microsporidia and nucleomorphs[5]. This suggests that certain forces, such as the need for efficient replication within a host, may universally drive genome evolution in parasites. The study's findings also shed light on the phylogenetic placement of Ascetosporea, which has been difficult to determine due to the lack of molecular data. By comparing the new genomes with those of other organisms, researchers can now make more informed hypotheses about the evolutionary origin of these parasites and how they are related to other eukaryotic lineages. Moreover, the genomic data from the closely related amphizoic species—a type of organism that can live both as a parasite and free-living—provides a valuable reference point for understanding the genetic changes associated with a parasitic lifestyle. By comparing the genomes of Ascetosporea with their amphizoic relatives, researchers can identify the specific genes and pathways that were lost or gained during the transition to parasitism. This research is a step forward in piecing together the complex evolutionary puzzle of parasitism. By combining phenotypic strategies with genomic data, scientists can better understand the adaptive peaks that parasites have reached and how these are reflected at the genetic level. As more genomes of parasitic species are sequenced and analyzed, we can expect to uncover further patterns and principles governing the evolution of parasitism. In conclusion, the study by Uppsala University not only fills a significant gap in our knowledge of Ascetosporea but also contributes to the broader understanding of parasitic evolution. The genomic adaptations observed in these parasites echo the trends seen in other parasitic lineages, highlighting the convergent nature of evolution when it comes to exploiting host organisms. This research paves the way for future studies into the intricate relationships between parasites and their hosts, with implications for controlling and preventing the spread of parasitic diseases in aquaculture and beyond.

GeneticsMarine BiologyEvolution


Main Study

1) Comparative genomics of Ascetosporea gives new insight into the evolutionary basis for animal parasitism in Rhizaria

Published 3rd May, 2024


Related Studies

2) Evolution of parasitism along convergent lines: from ecology to genomics.


3) Genome sequence and gene compaction of the eukaryote parasite Encephalitozoon cuniculi.

Journal: Nature, Issue: Vol 414, Issue 6862, Nov 2001

4) Kinetoplastid Phylogenomics Reveals the Evolutionary Innovations Associated with the Origins of Parasitism.


5) Causes and effects of nuclear genome reduction.

Journal: Current opinion in genetics & development, Issue: Vol 15, Issue 6, Dec 2005

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