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The Parasite that Causes Whirling Disease, Myxobolus cerebralis, is Genetically Variable Within and Across Spatial Scales


Corresponding Author: Nilanjan Lodh, Department of Biology, The University of Vermont, 109 Carrigan Drive, 120A MLS, Burlington, Vermont 05405—Telephone number: +1 802 881 6220; FAX number: 802 656 2914; e-mail:


Understanding the genetic structure of parasite populations on the natural landscape can reveal important aspects of disease ecology and epidemiology and can indicate parasite dispersal across the landscape. Myxobolus cerebralis (Myxozoa: Myxosporea), the causative agent of whirling disease in the definitive host Tubifex tubifex, is native to Eurasia and has spread to more than 25 states in the USA. The small amounts of data available to date suggest that M. cerebralis has little genetic variability. We examined the genetic variability of parasites infecting the definitive host T. tubifex in the Madison River, MT, and also from other parts of North America and Europe. We cloned and sequenced 18S ribosomal DNA and the internal transcribed spacer-1 (ITS-1) gene. Five oligochaetes were examined for 18S and five for ITS-1, only one individual was examined for both genes. We found two different 18S rRNA haplotypes of M. cerebralis from five worms and both intra- and interworm genetic variation for ITS-1, which showed 16 different haplotypes from among 20 clones. Comparison of our sequences with those from other studies revealed M. cerebralis from MT was similar to the parasite collected from Alaska, Oregon, California, and Virginia in the USA and from Munich, Germany, based on 18S, whereas parasite sequences from West Virginia were very different. Combined with the high haplotype diversity of ITS-1 and uniqueness of ITS-1 haplotypes, our results show that M. cerebralis is more variable than previously thought and raises the possibility of multiple introductions of the parasite into North America.

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