Leishmaniasis parasite protects the fly that transmits it to humans

13 August 2014

The Leishmania parasite, which causes the human disease leishmaniasis, acts as a probiotic in the insect that transmits it to humans, protecting them from infection by bacteria.

The research, by Lancaster University and published in the open access journal Parasites and Vectors [1], suggests that using bacterial controls to stop the spread of leishmaniasis could sometimes have the opposite effect to that intended, by benefiting flies carrying the parasite.

Around 12 million people are currently infected with leishmaniasis worldwide, mostly in South America, Africa and Asia. It is estimated to kill 20-50,000 people per year. Sandflies transmit the parasite by feeding on an infected mammal and, if they survive long enough, feeding on another mammal, and passing the parasite on to them.

The team from Lancaster University studied sandflies’ interactions with bacteria, to find a new way to control the sandfly populations, and curb the spread of leishmaniasis. They set out to study the effects on the sandfly of carrying both the Leishmania parasite and the bacterial pathogen Serratia marcescens, a naturally occurring disease in sandfly populations.

The team took a population of Lutzomyia longipalpis sandflies and fed them blood meal containing the Leishmania parasite, and a second group with uninfected blood meal. They then fed both groups with the Serratia pathogen. The group that were carrying the Leishmania parasite had a survival rate of 56% after six days, in contrast to the control group, which had a survival rate of just 11%. This showed that carrying both the Leishmania parasite and the bacterial pathogen protected the flies and increased their lifespan.

The authors say that this finding is important for efforts to develop biological controls against vectors of disease using bacterial pathogens, as these may have unexpected effects in the wild.

Researcher Dr Rod Dillon said: “We’re looking at using bacteria to stop the spread of Leishmaniasis, but it turns out that the Leishmania parasite works as a kind of probiotic and reduces the mortality of the fly.”

Dr Fernando Genta said: “Finding out that sandflies can benefit from Leishmania infection was a surprise. It changes the way we think about the vector-parasite interaction. From an evolutionary point of view, it may be interesting for sandflies to have a part of its population permissive to Leishmania infection. This may be one explanation for the maintenance of this interaction throughout time.

“Our finding states an alert for vector control strategies. If you try to use a pathogen to reduce sandflies population, you may favor the Leishmania infected insects. In the end, it may increase the chance of human infections.”


Sant’Anna MRV et al. Colonisation resistance in the sand fly gut: Leishmania protects Lutzomyia longipalpis from bacterial infection.
Parasites & Vectors 2014 7: 39


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