Evidence to support horses as natural intermediate hosts for Sarcocystis neurona

Vet Parasitol. 2005 Oct 10;133(1):27-36. doi: 10.1016/j.vetpar.2005.05.016.


Opossums (Didelphis spp.) are the definitive host for the protozoan parasite Sarcocystis neurona, the causative agent of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM). Opossums shed sporocysts in feces that can be ingested by true intermediate hosts (cats, raccoons, skunks, armadillos and sea otters). Horses acquire the parasite by ingestion of feed or water contaminated by opossum feces. However, horses have been classified as aberrant intermediate hosts because the terminal asexual sarcocyst stage that is required for transmission to the definitive host has not been found in their tissues despite extensive efforts to search for them [Dubey, J.P., Lindsay, D.S., Saville, W.J., Reed, S.M., Granstrom, D.E., Speer, C.A., 2001b. A review of Sarcocystis neurona and equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM). Vet. Parasitol. 95, 89-131]. In a 4-month-old filly with neurological disease consistent with EPM, we demonstrate schizonts in the brain and spinal cord and mature sarcocysts in the tongue and skeletal muscle, both with genetic and morphological characteristics of S. neurona. The histological and electron microscopic morphology of the schizonts and sarcocysts were identical to published features of S. neurona [Stanek, J.F., Dubey, J.P., Oglesbee, M.J., Reed, S.M., Lindsay, D.S., Capitini, L.A., Njoku, C.J., Vittitow, K.L., Saville, W.J., 2002. Life cycle of Sarcocystis neurona in its natural intermediate host, the raccoon, Procyon lotor. J. Parasitol. 88, 1151-1158]. DNA from schizonts and sarcocysts from this horse produced Sarcocystis specific 334bp PCR products [Tanhauser, S.M., Yowell, C.A., Cutler, T.J., Greiner, E.C., MacKay, R.J., Dame, J.B., 1999. Multiple DNA markers differentiate Sarcocystis neurona and Sarcocystis falcatula. J. Parasitol. 85, 221-228]. Restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis of these PCR products showed banding patterns characteristic of S. neurona. Sequencing, alignment and comparison of both schizont and sarcocyst DNA amplicons showed 100% identity. Although Koch's postulates have not been demonstrated in this case study, the finding of mature, intact S. neurona schizonts and sarcocysts in the tissues of this single horse strongly suggests that horses have the potential to act as intermediate hosts. Further studies are needed to demonstrate Koch's postulates with repeated transfer of S. neurona between opossums and horses.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • DNA, Protozoan / chemistry
  • DNA, Protozoan / genetics
  • Encephalomyelitis / parasitology*
  • Encephalomyelitis / pathology
  • Encephalomyelitis / veterinary*
  • Fatal Outcome
  • Female
  • Horse Diseases / parasitology*
  • Horse Diseases / pathology
  • Horses
  • Immunohistochemistry / veterinary
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission / veterinary
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / veterinary
  • Polymorphism, Restriction Fragment Length
  • Sarcocystis / genetics
  • Sarcocystis / isolation & purification*
  • Sarcocystis / ultrastructure
  • Sarcocystosis / parasitology
  • Sarcocystosis / pathology
  • Sarcocystosis / veterinary*
  • Sequence Alignment


  • DNA, Protozoan