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ARS Home » Northeast Area » Beltsville, Maryland (BARC) » Beltsville Agricultural Research Center » Environmental Microbial & Food Safety Laboratory » Research » Research Project #439556

Research Project: Detection and Characterization of Zoonotic and Emerging Parasites Affecting Food Safety and Public Health

Location: Environmental Microbial & Food Safety Laboratory

Project Number: 8042-32000-112-000-D
Project Type: In-House Appropriated

Start Date: Dec 20, 2020
End Date: Dec 19, 2025

Objective 1: Characterize genomes of zoonotic parasites to conduct comparative genomics to determine the genetic basis of host specificity, pathogenicity, and virulence. Objective 2: Develop improved molecular assays for detection of zoonotic parasites in food and environmental samples. Objective 3: Elucidate the epidemiology of water and food borne parasites Cyclospora, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Blastocystis and Microsporidia by identifying unique and emerging genetic variants using molecular tools.

Protist parasites, including Cyclospora, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Blastocystis and Microsporidia, are some of the most common causes of food and waterborne intestinal illness in the United States and around the world. Yet, our knowledge of the basic biology, epidemiology, and transmission sources of these organisms remains incomplete. This knowledge gap is due in part to the need for better tools to study the prevalence, persistence, and genomic composition of protist parasites in their natural environments. This project plan will address these research needs using a multi-faceted approach. We will develop culture free methods of parasite collection and concentration that will be used to produce novel genomes for zoonotic protist parasites and use those genomes to conduct comparative genomic studies to determine the genes responsible for host specificity, pathogenicity, and virulence. We will develop next generation amplicon sequencing assays and bioinformatic pipelines to improve both detection and resolution of mixed infections of zoonotic protist parasites. The more sensitive newly developed collection and sequencing tools will aide in the determination of the extent and sources of contamination of fresh produce and water to better characterize the movement and population structure of zoonotic parasites across the food continuum. We will characterize the genetics of zoonotic protist parasites in various food animals, fresh produce, and water to detect emerging zoonotic parasites. This information is key to understanding zoonotic transmission risk and the complex associations between humans, food animals, and wildlife. The data and new molecular tools generated by this project plan can be used by scientists, regulators, and industry to better understand the risk zoonotic protist parasites pose to human health and to develop intervention strategies to improve food and water safety.