Histopathological, morphological, and molecular characterization of Sarcocystis species in elk (Cervus elaphus) from Pennsylvania, USA

Camila K. Cerqueira-Cézar, Peter C. Thompson, Fernando H.A. Murata, Joseph Mowery, Justin D. Brown, Jeremy Banfield, Benjamin M. Rosenthal, Jitender P. Dubey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Sarcocystis sarcocysts are common in many species of domestic and wild animals. Here, we report sarcocystosis in muscles from 91 free range elk (Cervus elaphus) from Pennsylvania, USA, tested by histopathology, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and DNA sequencing. Sarcocysts were detected in hematoxylin and eosin (HE)-stained sections from 83 of 91 (91.2%) elk, including 83/91 (91.2%) tongues and 15/17 (88.2%) hearts. With respect to age, sarcocysts were found in 0/5 calves, 8/9 (88.8%) yearlings, and 75/77 (97.4%) adults. Sarcocysts were identified in 62/69 (89.4%) females and 21/22 (91.2%) males. Associated lesions were mild and consisted of inflammatory foci around degenerate sarcocysts. There were two morphologically distinct sarcocysts based on wall thickness, thin (< 0.5 μm) and thick-walled (> 4.0 μm). Thin-walled sarcocysts had a TEM “type 2” and villar protrusions (vps), identical to Sarcocystis wapiti previously described from elk in western USA. This species was present both in tongue and heart samples and was detected in all infected elk. Thick-walled sarcocysts consisted of three morphologic variants, referred to herein as subkinds A, B, C. Subkind A sarcocysts were rare; only four sarcocysts were found in three elk. Histologically, they had a 5–8-μm thick wall with tufted vp. By TEM, the sarcocyst wall was “type 12” and appeared similar to Sarcocystis sybillensis, previously described from elk in USA. Subkind B, Sarcocystis sp.1 sarcocysts were also rare, found in only 1 elk. These sarcocysts had 6.7–7.3-μm-thick wall with TEM “type 15b” vp. Subkind C Sarcocystis sp.2 sarcocysts were more common (22/91). Morphologically, the sarcocyst wall was 6.1–6.8 μm thick and contained “type 10b” vp. Comparisons of ribosomal DNA loci with published sequences indicated all sarcocysts were similar to what has previously been isolated from cervid hosts across the northern hemisphere. Phylogenetic analysis placed the thin-walled S. wapiti within a strongly supported clade with S. linearis and S. taeniata, while the thick-walled cysts were very closely related to S. truncata, S. elongata, S. silva, and S. tarandi. Further sequencing is needed to produce molecular diagnostics to distinguish among these species. North American elk are hosts to multiple Sarcocystis species with diverse morphology, deriving from two separate evolutionary lineages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3245-3255
Number of pages11
JournalParasitology Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Parasitology
  • General Veterinary
  • Insect Science
  • Infectious Diseases


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