Use of molecular and ultrastructural markers to evaluate stage conversion of Toxoplasma gondii in both the intermediate and definitive host.
Toxoplasma gondii has a complex life cycle involving definite (cat) and intermediate (all warm blooded animals) hosts. This gives rise to four infectious forms each of which has a distinctive biological role. Two (tachyzoite and merozoite) are involved in propagation within a host and two (bradyzoite and sporozoite) are involved in transmission to new hosts. The various forms can be identified by their structure, host parasite relationship and distinctive developmental processes. In the present in vivo study, the various stages have been evaluated by electron microscopy and immunocytochemistry using a panel of molecular markers relating to surface and cytoplasmic molecules, metabolic iso-enzymes and secreted proteins that can differentiate between tachyzoite, bradyzoite and coccidian development. Tachyzoites were characterised as being positive for surface antigen 1, enolase isoenzyme 2, lactic dehydrogenase isoenzyme 1 and negative for bradyzoite antigen 1. In contrast, bradyzoites were negative for SAG1 but positive for BAG1, ENO1 and LDH2. When stage conversion was followed in brain lesion at 10 and 15 days post-infection, tachyzoites were predominant but a number of single intermediate organisms displaying tachyzoite and certain bradyzoite markers were observed. At later time points, small groups of organisms displaying only bradyzoite markers were also present. A number (9) of dense granule proteins (GRA1-8, NTPase) have also been identified in both tachyzoites and bradyzoites but there were differences in their location during parasite development. All the dense granule proteins extensively label the parasitophorous vacuole during tachyzoite development. In contrast the tissue cyst wall displays variable staining for the dense granule proteins, which also expresses an additional unique cyst wall protein. The molecular differences could be identified at the single cell stage consistent with conversion occurring at the time of entry into a new cell. These molecular differences were reflected in the structural differences in the parasitophorous vacuoles observed by electron microscopy. Stage conversion to enteric (coccidian) development was limited to the enterocytes of the cat small intestine. Although no specific markers were available, this form of development can be identified by the absence of specific tachyzoite (SAG1) and bradyzoite (BAG1) markers although the isoenzymes ENO2 and LHD1 were expressed. There was also a significant difference in the expression of the dense granule proteins. The coccidian stages and merozoites only expressed two (GRA7 and NTPase) of the nine dense granule proteins and this was reflected in significant differences in the structure of the parasitophorous vacuole. The coccidian stages also undergo conversion from asexual to sexual development. The mechanism controlling this process is unknown but does not involve any change in the host cell type or parasitophorous vacuole and may be pre-programmed, since the number of asexual cycles was self-limiting. In conclusion, it was possible using a combination of molecular markers to identify tachyzoite, bradyzoite and coccidian development in tissue sections.