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PLoS Biol. 2019 Aug 20;17(8):e3000364. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000364. eCollection 2019 Aug.

Intestinal delta-6-desaturase activity determines host range for Toxoplasma sexual reproduction.

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Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, United States of America.
Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory, Animal and Natural Resources Institute, United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, Maryland, United States of America.


Many eukaryotic microbes have complex life cycles that include both sexual and asexual phases with strict species specificity. Whereas the asexual cycle of the protistan parasite Toxoplasma gondii can occur in any warm-blooded mammal, the sexual cycle is restricted to the feline intestine. The molecular determinants that identify cats as the definitive host for T. gondii are unknown. Here, we defined the mechanism of species specificity for T. gondii sexual development and break the species barrier to allow the sexual cycle to occur in mice. We determined that T. gondii sexual development occurs when cultured feline intestinal epithelial cells are supplemented with linoleic acid. Felines are the only mammals that lack delta-6-desaturase activity in their intestines, which is required for linoleic acid metabolism, resulting in systemic excess of linoleic acid. We found that inhibition of murine delta-6-desaturase and supplementation of their diet with linoleic acid allowed T. gondii sexual development in mice. This mechanism of species specificity is the first defined for a parasite sexual cycle. This work highlights how host diet and metabolism shape coevolution with microbes. The key to unlocking the species boundaries for other eukaryotic microbes may also rely on the lipid composition of their environments as we see increasing evidence for the importance of host lipid metabolism during parasitic lifecycles. Pregnant women are advised against handling cat litter, as maternal infection with T. gondii can be transmitted to the fetus with potentially lethal outcomes. Knowing the molecular components that create a conducive environment for T. gondii sexual reproduction will allow for development of therapeutics that prevent shedding of T. gondii parasites. Finally, given the current reliance on companion animals to study T. gondii sexual development, this work will allow the T. gondii field to use of alternative models in future studies.

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