PloS one

Seeing the Whole Elephant: Imaging Flow Cytometry Reveals Extensive Morphological Diversity within Blastocystis Isolates.

PMID 26618361


Blastocystis is a common protist isolated in humans and many animals. The parasite is a species complex composed of 19 subtypes, 9 of which have been found in humans. There are biological and molecular differences between Blastocystis subtypes although microscopy alone is unable to distinguish between these subtypes. Blastocystis isolates also display various morphological forms. Several of these forms, however, have not been properly evaluated on whether or not these play significant functions in the organism's biology. In this study, we used imaging flow cytometry to analyze morphological features of Blastocystis isolates representing 3 subtypes (ST1, ST4 and ST7). We also employed fluorescence dyes to discover new cellular features. The profiles from each of the subtypes exhibit considerable differences with the others in terms of shape, size and granularity. We confirmed that the classical vacuolar form comprises the majority in all three subtypes. We have also evaluated other morphotypes on whether these represent distinct life stages in the parasite. Irregularly-shaped cells were identified but all of them were found to be dying cells in one isolate. Granular forms were present as a continuum in both viable and non-viable populations, with non-viable forms displaying higher granularity. By analyzing the images, rare morphotypes such as multinucleated cells could be easily observed and quantified. These cells had low granularity and lower DNA content. Small structures containing nucleic acid were also identified. We discuss the possible biological implications of these unusual forms.