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Summary

A systemic infection of a Rickettsia-like organism (RLO) in cultured sea bass is described for the first time. In hatcheries, clinical signs were lethargy, inappetence and discoloration. Twenty days after transfer to sea cages from hatcheries where the disease existed, fish showed erratic and abnormal swimming behaviour, loss of orientation, and lethargy. Cumulative mortality in colder months of the year reached 30% in hatcheries and 80% in cages. Surviving fish in cages did not show any clinical signs of RLO infection in the subsequent year. Evidence for a systemic distribution of RLO was supported by histolopathological lesions in both infected hatchery and caged fish, where the lesion profile included cranial sensory, central nervous, integumental and alimentary organ systems. Intracranial lesions were primarily characterized by an ascending histiocytic perineuritis and necrotizing congestive meningoencephalitis, with evidence for transfer of infective agents across the blood–brain barrier confirmed by the presence of RLOs within capillary endothelium and histiocytes in inflamed regions of the optic tectum and the cerebellum. In the most severe cases, infection spread to the statoacoustical (semicircular) canal system and the ependymal lining of ventricles, with marked rickettsial-laden histiocytic infiltration of the canal lumen. Integumental lesions were restricted to the oral submucosa, nares and integumental dermis of the cranium. Alimentary lesions were noted in both the liver parenchyma and mucosa/submucosa of the stomach. In all affected organs the RLOs were found by immunohistochemistry to be related to Piscirickettsia salmonis.