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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Investigation of Molecular Pathogen Screening Assays for Use in Delta Smelt


Pathogen surveillance must be part of any population supplementation or reintroduction program for the conservation of threatened and endangered species. The unintended transmission of pathogens can have devastating effects on these already at-risk populations or the natural ecosystem at large. In the San Francisco Estuary (estuary), abundance of the endemic Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) has declined to the point where regulatory managers are preparing to augment the wild population using fish propagated in a hatchery to prevent species extinction. Although disease is not an overt cause of population decline, comprehensive pathogen presence and prevalence data are lacking. Here, we performed a pilot study that applied molecular assays originally developed in salmonids to assess the presence of a wide variety of pathogens in the gill tissue of cultured and wild Delta Smelt—as well as cultured fish—deployed in enclosures in the estuary. We found the assays to be highly sensitive, and observed positive detections of a single pathogen, Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, in 13% of cultured Delta Smelt. We also detected ten other pathogens at very low levels in cultured, enclosure-deployed, and wild Delta Smelt that likely represent the ambient pathogen composition in the estuary (as opposed to actual infection). Our results corroborate previous work that cultured Delta Smelt do not appear to present a high risk for pathogen transmission during population supplementation or reintroduction. However, the molecular pathogen screening assays tested here have great utility as an early warning system indicator of when further diagnostic testing might be necessary to limit the extent and frequency of disease outbreaks; their utility will be further increased once they are customized for Delta Smelt.

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