DAO 52:233-247 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/dao052233

Molecular diagnostics, field validation, and phylogenetic analysis of Quahog Parasite Unknown (QPX), a pathogen of the hard clam Mercenaria mercenaria

N. A. Stokes*, L. M. Ragone Calvo, K. S. Reece, E. M. Burreson

School of Marine Science, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, Gloucester Point, Virginia 23062, USA

ABSTRACT: Quahog Parasite Unknown (QPX) is a protistan parasite that causes disease and mortality in the hard clam Mercenaria mercenaria. PCR primers and DNA oligonucleotide probes were designed and evaluated for sensitivity and specificity for the QPX organism specifically and for the phylum Labyrinthulomycota in general. The best performing QPX-specific primer pair amplified a 665 bp region of the QPX small-subunit ribosomal DNA (SSU rDNA) and detected as little as 1 fg cloned QPX SSU rDNA and 20 fg QPX genomic DNA. The primers did not amplify DNA of uninfected hard clams M. mercenaria or of the thraustochytrids Schizochytrium aggregatum, Thraustochytrium aureum, and T. striatum. The general labyrinthulomycete primers, which were designed to offer broader specificity than the QPX primers, amplified a 435 bp region of SSU rDNA from QPX, and a 436 to 437 bp region of SSU rDNA from S. aggregatum, T. aureum, and T. striatum, but did not amplify that of the clam M. mercenaria. Field validation of the QPX-specific primer pair, through comparative sampling of 224 clams collected over a 16 mo period from a QPX endemic site in Virginia, USA, indicated that the PCR assay is equivalent to histological diagnosis if initially negative PCR products are reamplified. Oligonucleotide DNA probes specific for QPX and the phylum Labyrinthulomycota were evaluated for in situ hybridization assays of cell smears or paraffin-embedded tissues. Two DNA probes for QPX offered limited sensitivity when used independently; however, when used together as a probe cocktail, sensitivity was greatly enhanced. The probe cocktail hybridized to putative QPX organisms in tissues of hard clams collected from Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Canada, suggesting that the QPX organisms in these areas are either very closely related or the same species. The QPX probe cocktail did not hybridize with clam tissue or with the thraustochytrids S. aggregatum, T. aureum, and T. striatum. The labyrinthulomycete DNA probe hybridized with QPX and the 3 thraustochytrids, with no background hybridization to clam tissue. SSU rDNA sequences were obtained for the putative QPX organisms from geographically distinct sites. Phylogenetic analyses based on the QPX and Labyrinthulomycota sequences confirmed earlier reports that QPX is a member of this phylum, but could not definitively demonstrate that all of the QPX organisms were the same species.

KEY WORDS: Hard clams · Disease · QPX · Molecular techniques · PCR · Probe

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