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PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37804. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037804. Epub 2012 May 25.

Evidence for an African cluster of human head and body lice with variable colors and interbreeding of lice between continents.

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  • 1Unité de Recherche sur les Maladies Infectieuses et Tropicales Emergentes, UMR CNRS 6236, IRD 198, IFR48, Faculté de Médecine, Université de la Méditerranée, Marseille, France.



Human head lice and body lice have been classified based on phenotypic characteristics, including geographical source, ecotype (preferred egg laying site hair or clothes), shape and color. More recently, genotypic studies have been based on mitochondrial genes, nuclear genes and intergenic spacers. Mitochondrial genetic analysis reclassified lice into three genotypes (A, B and C). However, no previous study has attempted to correlate both genotypic and phenotypic data.


Lice were collected in four African countries: Senegal, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia and were photographed to compare their colors. The Multi-Spacer-Typing (MST) method was used to genotype lice belonging to the worldwide Clade A, allowing a comparison of phenotypic and genotypic data.


No congruence between louse color and genotype has been identified. Phylogenetic analysis of the spacer PM2, performed including lice from other sources, showed the existence of an African cluster of human lice. However, the analysis of other spacers suggested that lice from different areas are interbreeding.


We identified two geotypes of Clade A head and body lice including one that is specifically African, that can be either black or grey and can live on the head or in clothing. We also hypothesized that lice from different areas are interbreeding.

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