Skin-penetrating parasitic nematodes infect approximately one billion people worldwide and are a major source of neglected tropical disease [1-6]. Their life cycle includes an infective third-larval (iL3) stage that searches for hosts to infect in a poorly understood process that involves both thermal and olfactory cues. Here, we investigate the temperature-driven behaviors of skin-penetrating iL3s, including the human-parasitic threadworm Strongyloides stercoralis and the human-parasitic hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum. We show that human-parasitic iL3s respond robustly to thermal gradients. Like the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, human-parasitic iL3s show both positive and negative thermotaxis, and the switch between them is regulated by recent cultivation temperature . When engaging in positive thermotaxis, iL3s migrate toward temperatures approximating mammalian body temperature. Exposing iL3s to a new cultivation temperature alters the thermal switch point between positive and negative thermotaxis within hours, similar to the timescale of thermal plasticity in C. elegans . Thermal plasticity in iL3s may enable them to optimize host finding on a diurnal temperature cycle. We show that temperature-driven responses can be dominant in multisensory contexts such that, when thermal drive is strong, iL3s preferentially engage in temperature-driven behaviors despite the presence of an attractive host odorant. Finally, targeted mutagenesis of the S. stercoralis tax-4 homolog abolishes heat seeking, providing the first evidence that parasitic host-seeking behaviors are generated through an adaptation of sensory cascades that drive environmental navigation in C. elegans [7-10]. Together, our results provide insight into the behavioral strategies and molecular mechanisms that allow skin-penetrating nematodes to target humans.
Keywords: Ancylostoma ceylanicum; Strongyloides stercoralis; heat seeking; host-seeking behavior; parasitic helminths; parasitic nematodes; skin-penetrating nematodes; thermosensation; thermotaxis.
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