Free-living amoebae (FLA) belonging to Acanthamoeba spp., Naegleria fowleri, Balamuthia mandrillaris, and Sappinia pedata are known to cause infections in humans and animals leading to severe brain pathologies. Worldwide, warm aquatic environments have been found to be suitable habitats for pathogenic FLA. The present study reports on screening for potentially pathogenic FLA in four hot spring resorts in Switzerland. Water samples were taken from water filtration units and from the pools, respectively. Amoebae isolated from samples taken during, or before, the filtration process were demonstrated to be morphologically and phylogenetically related to Stenoamoeba sp., Hartmannella vermiformis, Echinamoeba exundans, and Acanthamoeba healyi. With regard to the swimming pools, FLA were isolated only in one resort, and the isolate was identified as non-pathogenic and as related to E. exundans. Further investigations showed that the isolates morphologically and phylogenetically related to A. healyi displayed a pronounced thermotolerance, and exhibited a marked in vitro cytotoxicity upon 5-day exposure to murine L929 fibroblasts. Experimental intranasal infection of Rag2-immunodeficient mice with these isolates led to severe brain pathologies, and viable trophozoites were isolated from the nasal mucosa, brain tissue, and lungs post mortem. In summary, isolates related to A. healyi were suggestive of being potentially pathogenic to immunocompromised persons. However, the presence of these isolates was limited to the filtration units, and an effective threat for health can therefore be excluded.
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