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Stirred, not shaken: genetic structure of the intermediate snail host Oncomelania hupensis robertsoni in an historically endemic schistosomiasis area



Oncomelania hupensis robertsoni is the sole intermediate host for Schistosoma japonicum in western China. Given the close co-evolutionary relationships between snail host and parasite, there is interest in understanding the distribution of distinct snail phylogroups as well as regional population structures. Therefore, this study focuses on these aspects in a re-emergent schistosomiasis area known to harbour representatives of two phylogroups - the Deyang-Mianyang area in Sichuan Province, China. Based on a combination of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, the following questions were addressed: 1) the phylogeography of the two O. h. robertsoni phylogroups, 2) regional and local population structure in space and time, and 3) patterns of local dispersal under different isolation-by-distance scenarios.


The phylogenetic analyses confirmed the existence of two distinct phylogroups within O. h. robertsoni. In the study area, phylogroups appear to be separated by a mountain range. Local specimens belonging to the respective phylogroups form monophyletic clades, indicating a high degree of lineage endemicity. Molecular clock estimations reveal that local lineages are at least 0.69-1.58 million years (My) old and phylogeographical analyses demonstrate that local, watershed and regional effects contribute to population structure. For example, Analyses of Molecular Variances (AMOVAs) show that medium-scale watersheds are well reflected in population structures and Mantel tests indicate isolation-by-distance effects along waterways.


The analyses revealed a deep, complex and hierarchical structure in O. h. robertsoni, likely reflecting a long and diverse evolutionary history. The findings have implications for understanding disease transmission. From a co-evolutionary standpoint, the divergence of the two phylogroups raises species level questions in O. h. robertsoni and also argues for future studies relative to the distinctness of the respective parasites. The endemicity of snail lineages at the regional level supports the concept of endemic schistosomiasis areas and calls for future geospatial analyses for a better understanding of respective boundaries. Finally, local snail dispersal mainly occurs along waterways and can be best described by using cost distance, thus potentially enabling a more precise modelling of snail, and therefore, parasite dispersal.

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