An icky parasite that is a major source of tummy trouble for young children and nature lovers appears to have been infecting mammals for a very long time, researchers said Thursday.
Giardia lamblia is one of the most common human parasites in the United States, causing more than 20,000 intestinal infections each year. A complete genetic sequence of this parasite now suggests it had ancestors reaching back more than a billion years.
“We think it is deep in the evolutionary tree,” said Hilary Morrison of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., whose study appears in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
Giardia is a eukaryote, one of a diverse bunch of organisms made up of cells with a nucleus that contains genetic material. But Morrison said its molecular machinery seems too simple to have evolved from more modern and complex eukaryotes.
“It is about the size of a yeast genome, which was one of the earliest eukaryote genomes to be sequenced and has about 6,000 genes,” Morrison said. In comparison, the genome of humans, who are also eukaryotes, contains about 20,000 genes.
She said Giardia lacks a number of proteins such as the structural protein myosin that should be present if it were modern eukaryote.
The evolutionary story of this parasite will likely become clearer as new genomes are sequenced, but the Giardia genome can offer more immediate insights in the search for more effective treatments for giardiasis.
Bug strikes swimmers and day-care kids
Spread through oral-fecal contact, giardiasis often strikes children in day-care centers where diapers are changed. It can also infect swimmers who swallow contaminated water.
In the intestine, Giardia swims and feeds, causing gas, diarrhea and discomfort until it is finally expelled through the stool. The whole unpleasant affair can last anywhere from two to six weeks, but some people can have the infection without these symptoms.
In the environment, Giardia takes the form of an infectious cyst that can survive for weeks in water, soil, food and other surfaces.
Hikers drinking what they think to be pristine mountain water fall prey to this parasite. “It’s also known as beaver fever because animals can infect the water,” Morrison said.
Many people need no treatment for giardiasis, but prescription drugs are available. “The problem now is people are getting treatment resistance,” Morrison said.
That is where the genome study should prove most useful.
“By having the genome and knowing all the proteins in it, people who develop drugs can look at those and develop good candidates,” she said.