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PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2009 Jun 23;3(6):e463. doi: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0000463.

Leptospira interrogans stably infects zebrafish embryos, altering phagocyte behavior and homing to specific tissues.

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Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis Graduate Program, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America.


Leptospirosis is an extremely widespread zoonotic infection with outcomes ranging from subclinical infection to fatal Weil's syndrome. Despite the global impact of the disease, key aspects of its pathogenesis remain unclear. To examine in detail the earliest steps in the host response to leptospires, we used fluorescently labelled Leptospira interrogans serovar Copenhageni to infect 30 hour post fertilization zebrafish embryos by either the caudal vein or hindbrain ventricle. These embryos have functional innate immunity but have not yet developed an adaptive immune system. Furthermore, they are optically transparent, allowing direct visualization of host-pathogen interactions from the moment of infection. We observed rapid uptake of leptospires by phagocytes, followed by persistent, intracellular infection over the first 48 hours. Phagocytosis of leptospires occasionally resulted in formation of large cellular vesicles consistent with apoptotic bodies. By 24 hours, clusters of infected phagocytes were accumulating lateral to the dorsal artery, presumably in early hematopoietic tissue. Our observations suggest that phagocytosis may be a key defense mechanism in the early stages of leptospirosis, and that phagocytic cells play roles in immunopathogenesis and likely in the dissemination of leptospires to specific target tissues.

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