Toxoplasma gondii is a land-derived parasite that infects humans and marine mammals. Infections are a significant cause of mortality for endangered southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis), but the transmission mechanism is poorly understood. Otter exposure to T. gondii has been linked to the consumption of marine turban snails in kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) forests. It is unknown how turban snails acquire oocysts, as snails scrape food particles attached to surfaces, whereas T. gondii oocysts enter kelp beds as suspended particles via runoff. We hypothesized that waterborne T. gondii oocysts attach to kelp surfaces when encountering exopolymer substances (EPS) forming the sticky matrix of biofilms on kelp, and thus become available to snails. Results of a dietary composition analysis of field-collected snails and of kelp biofilm indicate that snails graze the dense kelp-biofilm assemblage composed of pennate diatoms and bacteria inserted within the EPS gel-like matrix. To test whether oocysts attach to kelp blades via EPS, we designed a laboratory experiment simulating the kelp forest canopy in tanks spiked with T. gondii surrogate microspheres and controlled for EPS and transparent exopolymer particles (TEP - the particulate form of EPS). On average, 19% and 31% of surrogates were detected attached to kelp surfaces covered with EPS in unfiltered and filtered seawater treatments, respectively. The presence of TEP in the seawater did not increase surrogate attachment. These findings support a novel transport mechanism of T. gondii oocysts: as oocysts enter the kelp forest canopy, a portion adheres to the sticky kelp biofilms. Snails grazing this biofilm encounter oocysts as 'bycatch' and thereby deliver the parasite to sea otters that prey upon snails. This novel mechanism can have health implications beyond T. gondii and otters, as a similar route of pathogen transmission may be implicated with other waterborne pathogens to marine wildlife and humans consuming biofilm-feeding invertebrates.
Mazzillo, F. F. M., Shapiro, K., & Silver, M. W. (2013). A new pathogen transmission mechanism in the ocean: the case of sea otter exposure to the land-parasite Toxoplasma gondii. PloS One, 8(12), e82477. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0082477