Background: Salmon species vary in susceptibility to infections with the salmon louse (Lepeophtheirus salmonis). Comparing mechanisms underlying responses in susceptible and resistant species is important for estimating impacts of infections on wild salmon, selective breeding of farmed salmon, and expanding our knowledge of fish immune responses to ectoparasites. Herein we report three L. salmonis experimental infection trials of co-habited Atlantic Salmo salar, chum Oncorhynchus keta and pink salmon O. gorbuscha, profiling hematocrit, blood cortisol concentrations, and transcriptomic responses of the anterior kidney and skin to the infection.
Results: In all trials, infection densities (lice per host weight (g)) were consistently highest on chum salmon, followed by Atlantic salmon, and lowest in pink salmon. At 43 days post-exposure, all lice had developed to motile stages, and infection density was uniformly low among species. Hematocrit was reduced in infected Atlantic and chum salmon, and cortisol was elevated in infected chum salmon. Systemic transcriptomic responses were profiled in all species and large differences in response functions were identified between Atlantic and Pacific (chum and pink) salmon. Pink and chum salmon up-regulated acute phase response genes, including complement and coagulation components, and down-regulated antiviral immune genes. The pink salmon response involved the largest and most diverse iron sequestration and homeostasis mechanisms. Pattern recognition receptors were up-regulated in all species but the active components were often species-specific. C-type lectin domain family 4 member M and acidic mammalian chitinase were specifically up-regulated in the resistant pink salmon.
Conclusions: Experimental exposures consistently indicated increased susceptibility in chum and Atlantic salmon, and resistance in pink salmon, with differences in infection density occurring within the first three days of infection. Transcriptomic analysis suggested candidate resistance functions including local inflammation with cytokines, specific innate pattern recognition receptors, and iron homeostasis. Suppressed antiviral immunity in both susceptible and resistant species indicates the importance of future work investigating co-infections of viral pathogens and lice.