Mycobacterium ulcerans dynamics in aquatic ecosystems are driven by a complex interplay of abiotic and biotic factors
A number of studies have suggested that Mycobacterium ulcerans, the etiological agent of Buruli ulcer, may be transmitted to humans by insect bites. M. ulcerans has been isolated from a predaceous aquatic insect, and PCR detection of M. ulcerans DNA in aquatic environments suggests that the organism is widely distributed within many invertebrate taxa and functional feeding groups. Thus, M. ulcerans may be concentrated through different trophic links. However, the specific environmental niche of M. ulcerans and route of transmission to humans remain a mystery. In this study, a biologically relevant infection model in which M. ulcerans-infected mosquito larvae were fed to a species of predaceous hemiptera (African Belostomatidae) was used to demonstrate the persistent colonization of M. ulcerans and subsequent transmission of bacteria to naïve prey. The association of M. ulcerans with specific anatomical compartments showed that M. ulcerans accumulates preferentially on the exoskeleton. In contrast, few organisms were found in dissected guts or salivary glands. No difference was found between the ability of wild-type M. ulcerans and an M. ulcerans isogenic mycolactone-negative mutant to colonize belostomatids. These data show that African belostomatids can successfully be colonized by M. ulcerans and support the trophic transfer of M. ulcerans within the environment.