Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Cryptic infection of a broad taxonomic and geographic diversity of tadpoles by Perkinsea protists.

PMID 26261337


The decline of amphibian populations, particularly frogs, is often cited as an example in support of the claim that Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction event. Amphibians seem to be particularly sensitive to emerging diseases (e.g., fungal and viral pathogens), yet the diversity and geographic distribution of infectious agents are only starting to be investigated. Recent work has linked a previously undescribed protist with mass-mortality events in the United States, in which infected frog tadpoles have an abnormally enlarged yellowish liver filled with protist cells of a presumed parasite. Phylogenetic analyses revealed that this infectious agent was affiliated with the Perkinsea: a parasitic group within the alveolates exemplified by Perkinsus sp., a "marine" protist responsible for mass-mortality events in commercial shellfish populations. Using small subunit (SSU) ribosomal DNA (rDNA) sequencing, we developed a targeted PCR protocol for preferentially sampling a clade of the Perkinsea. We tested this protocol on freshwater environmental DNA, revealing a wide diversity of Perkinsea lineages in these environments. Then, we used the same protocol to test for Perkinsea-like lineages in livers of 182 tadpoles from multiple families of frogs. We identified a distinct Perkinsea clade, encompassing a low level of SSU rDNA variation different from the lineage previously associated with tadpole mass-mortality events. Members of this clade were present in 38 tadpoles sampled from 14 distinct genera/phylogroups, from five countries across three continents. These data provide, to our knowledge, the first evidence that Perkinsea-like protists infect tadpoles across a wide taxonomic range of frogs in tropical and temperate environments, including oceanic islands.