A mysterious, deadly chimpanzee disease is linked to a human disease

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    The chimpanzee had been mysteriously dying at Takugama Sanctuary in Sierra Leone for a decade to 2016, when Tony Goldberg worked to find out why.

    Sanctuary staff, veterinarians and biologists investigated the disease for years. It was not contagious, did not infect humans, did not appear in other sanctuaries, but killed chimps in Takugama in an unmistakable, dangerous pattern.

    “It was always in the same season and always the same symptoms,” said the sanctuary’s conservation manager Andrea Pizzaro. Chimpanzees show what neurological symptoms seemed to be: lack of coordination, difficulty walking, and seizures. They will also display symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, such as distending abdomen and vomiting. If the syndrome appeared, a suffering shrimp did not survive.

    Occasionally, chimpanzees taking exactly one day were found dead the next, something that occurs in all sanctuaries and possibly even in the wild. But over the years, post-death trials showed the same pattern of intestinal damage that the chimpanzees showed.

    The sanctuary, a major tourist attraction and the only place for orphaned chimps in Sierra Leone, has more than 90 chimps on average. These are western chimpanzees, which are critically endangered species. Twenty-six chimpanzees have died of this mysterious disease in Takugama, the country that recently made the chimpanzee its national animal.

    What was even more surprising was the mystery that the pattern of the disease had occurred in Takugama. Chimps fell ill and died in other sanctuaries, of course, sometimes suddenly, but the specialty of the disease occurred in only one place. Several investigations focusing on viruses or poisonous plants yielded no clear answer.

    The image
    Credit …Tony goldberg

    In 2016, an epidemiologist and veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Drs. Goldberg, and the head of the Kibbel Ecolitics Project, was approached by the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance to try to solve this mystery. He And his colleagues in Wisconsin joined forces with other veterinarians and biologists for extensive analysis of blood and tissue in Africa and elsewhere, frozen in a nearby hospital.

    “It took me five years,” he said. On Wednesday, he and other researchers reached a milestone in their veterinary detective work with a report in Nature Communications, which clearly identified a new species of bacteria associated with the syndrome.

    So far, research has not found bacteria to be the sole cause of the disease, but it has opened a new window on the bacterial genus Sarsina, which may include more unknown species that are a threat to the health of humans and animals.

    Dr. Goldberg emphasized that it was not an epidemic in the making. The bacterium is not contagious, and does not cause widespread harm.

    From the beginning, there was nothing straightforward about the study, which included the introduction of raw materials into the laboratory for research. Dr. Goldberg credits Ismail Hirji, a Canadian vet in private practice, who was the sanctuary’s clinical vet in 2016, with overcoming those initial hurdles. “He These samples were moved out of Sierra Leone to the mountains, ”Dr. Goldberg said.

    The first hurdle involved the application process for permission to carry diseased tissue samples taken from an endangered species. The paperwork took about a year, Drs. Heerji remembered.

    A required police escort failed to show the day the samples were to be shipped. Dr. Heerjee and others made a last-minute dash by car and small boat, as the ferries usually carrying passengers to the airport were closed. In the boat, he said, “We were essentially taking 30 kg of samples over our heads.”

    Despite experiencing more difficulties at the airport, including a lack of cold storage, the group was eventually sent to Dr. in Wisconsin. Samples were found on an aircraft in Goldberg’s laboratory.

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    Credit …Wolfgang Kehler / Lightket, via Getty Image

    Subsequently, researchers began extensive investigations of blood and tissue from healthy and sick chimpanzees for viruses, bacteria, and parasites using genomic studies, visual examination of tissue, and other techniques.

    Leh a. Owens, a candidate for a Ph.D. And Dr. A veterinary degree, which worked in Goldberg’s lab, began to focus on bacteria after preliminary DNA surveys, with only one possible culprit, a bacterium in 68 percent of samples from sick chimps but none from healthy shrimp Was.

    Ms. Owens tried to grow the bacterium in culture, sent it to other laboratories for sequencing, looking for it in tissue samples. Almost impossible to grow in the laboratory, the bacteria eventually spread to a smear of brain tissue. Under a microscope, the tissue revealed the normal size of bacteria, shells, and cylinders. And then, he said, “I get that the bus is looking nuts.”

    “When you look at it directly, it looks like a four-leaf clover,” he said, but it’s actually a cube of four spheres.

    This indicates that it belonged to the genus Sarcina, which included only two known species. One lives in soil and the other, first identified in 1844, is called Sarsina ventriculi and was known to cause gastrointestinal symptoms in humans and animals, such as the Takugama chimp.

    In humans, sarcina can thrive after ventriculi surgery and produce gas that fills the intestinal walls. Once the infection reaches that stage, people almost die.

    Dr. The technical term, Goldberg said, is emphysematous gastroenteritis, and “that’s what chimps had.”

    As Ms. Owens further investigated, it became clear that the bacteria in chimpanzee specimens, in brain tissue where an intestinal bacterium definitely did not, resemble the species reported in humans and animals over many years Was. It was large and had significant differences in its genome.

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    Credit …Tony goldberg

    The researchers proposed in their paper that the new species should be named Sarcina troglodyte, as it was found in the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.

    Before the proposed name is accepted as an official new species, researchers need to grow the bacteria more successfully. At this stage, they have only shown that bacteria are associated with the disease, but not the cause.

    And the disease still emerges mysteriously. For example, the syndrome always peaks in March during the dry season. Keeping the chimpanzee in the afternoon helps prevent it. And anything in their diet or their environment can play a role.

    However, researchers have offered potential treatments. One drug that can be effective is omeprazole, a component of prilosic, which reduces stomach acid – an environment in which bacteria thrive.

    Some antibiotics are more effective than others. The manager of the sanctuary, Ms. Pizarro, said that a chimpanzee started developing the syndrome last week, but they have given it antibiotics and other treatments and it is getting better now. However, the syndrome can still kill after feeling like a recovery.

    Dr. Goldberg said that new bacteria, or others like it, may be more widespread than scientists. Sarcina bacteria have not been subjected to much research. Diseases and deaths in humans and animals responsible for Sarcina ventriculi may actually be caused by new bacteria, or similar species. If so, it is a group of bacteria that deserve more attention.

    “It falls into the category of things we should look for,” he said, “but don’t fret about it.” He said that the Sarasina epidemic is unlikely.

    But Dr. Goldberg said he would not be surprised, “At Retrospect, we believe that many human and animal diseases we attribute to other things are actually caused by versions of this bacterium.”

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