Pneumocystis species, co-evolution and pathogenic power

Infect Genet Evol. 2008 Sep;8(5):708-26. doi: 10.1016/j.meegid.2008.05.001. Epub 2008 May 9.


The genus Pneumocystis comprises uncultured, highly diversified microfungal organisms able to attach specifically to type-I alveolar epithelial cells and to proliferate in pulmonary alveoli provoking severe pneumonitis. The pathogenic potential of Pneumocystis species, especially of the human-associated Pneumocystis jirovecii, has stimulated a growing interest in these peculiar microfungi. However, a comprehensive understanding of basic biology and pathogenic power of Pneumocystis organisms calls for their recognition as natural, complex entities, without reducing them to their pathogenic role. For many years, the entity named "Pneumocystis carinii" was considered like an anecdotal pulmonary pathogen able to cause pneumonia in immunosuppressed hosts. Only for the last years, marked genetic divergence was documented among the Pneumocystis strains of different mammals. Cross-infection experiments showed that Pneumocystis species are stenoxenous parasites. Mainly on the basis of the Phylogenetic Concept of Species, Pneumocystis strains were considered as genuine species. Five species were described: P. carinii and Pneumocystis wakefieldiae in rats, P. jirovecii in humans, Pneumocystis murina in mice, and Pneumocystis oryctolagi in rabbits. They also present distinctive phenotypic features. Molecular techniques have revealed a high prevalence of Pneumocystis colonization in wild mammals, probably resulting from active airborne horizontal and vertical (transplacental or aerial) transmission mechanisms. Cophylogeny is the evolutionary pattern for Pneumocystis species, which dwelt in the lungs of mammals for more than 100 million years. Consistently, Pneumocystis organisms exhibit successful adaptation to colonize the lungs of both immunocompromised and healthy hosts that can act as infection reservoir. Pneumocystis pneumonia, rarely reported in wild mammals, seems to be a rather unfrequent event. A larger spectrum of Pneumocystis infections related to the heterogeneous level of immune defence found in natural populations, is, however, expected. Pneumocystis infection of immunocompetent hosts emerges therefore as a relevant issue to human as well as animal health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Ecosystem
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Humans
  • Immunocompetence
  • Life Cycle Stages
  • Lung / microbiology
  • Pneumocystis / classification*
  • Pneumocystis / genetics
  • Pneumocystis / growth & development
  • Pneumocystis / pathogenicity*
  • Pneumocystis Infections / microbiology*
  • Pneumocystis Infections / pathology
  • Pneumocystis Infections / transmission
  • Rabbits
  • Species Specificity