How to resist a parasite

A genetic study of freshwater snails, the intermediate host of the parasite that causes schistosomiasis, provides clues on how to stop this devastating disease.
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An aquatic snail shedding larvae of the blood fluke Schistosoma mansoni (elongated white specks in the surrounding water). Image credit: Clint Sergi (CC BY 4.0).

Schistosomiasis is a widespread parasitic disease, affecting over 200 million people in tropical countries. It is caused by schistosome worms, which are carried by freshwater snails. These snails release worm larvae into the water, where they can infect humans – for example, after bathing or swimming.

Treatment options for schistosomiasis are limited. Eliminating the freshwater snails is one way to control the disease, but this is not always effective in the long term and the chemicals used can also harm other animals in the water.

Another way to manage schistosomiasis could be to stop the worms from infecting their snail host by breaking the parasites’ life cycle without killing the snails. It is already known that some snails are naturally resistant to infection by some strains of schistosomes. Since this immunity is also inherited by the offspring of resistant snails, there is likely a genetic mechanism behind it. However, very little else is known about any genes that might be involved. Tennessen et al. therefore set out to identify what genes were responsible for schistosome resistance and how they worked.

The experiments used a large laboratory colony of snails, whose susceptibility to schistosome infection varied among individual animals. To determine the genes behind this variation, Tennessen et al. first searched for areas of DNA that also differed between the immune and infected snails. Comparing genetic sequences across over 1,000 snails revealed a distinct region of DNA that had a large effect on how likely they were to be infected.

This section of DNA turned out to be highly diverse, with different snails carrying varying numbers and different forms of the genes within this region. Many of these genes appear to encode proteins found on the surface of snail cells, which could affect whether snails and worms can recognize each other when they come into contact. This in turn could determine whether or not the worms can infect their hosts.

These results shed new light on how the snails that carry schistosomes may be able to resist infections. In the future, this knowledge could be key to controlling schistosomiasis, either by releasing genetically engineered, immune snails into the wild (thus making it harder for the parasites to reproduce) or by using the snails’ mechanism of resistance to design better drug therapies.