Open Access
Volume 29, 2022
Article Number 34
Number of page(s) 8
Published online 14 July 2022

© S. Chen et al., published by EDP Sciences, 2022

Licence Creative CommonsThis is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Blastocystis sp. belongs to the phylum Stramenopiles and is a common unicellular intestinal parasite of various animals. Generally, Blastocystis sp. is transmitted via the fecal-oral route, which is the primary mode of transmission [22, 23, 44]. Several studies have shown that humans are susceptible to zoonotic Blastocystis sp. [31, 50]. Epidemiological surveys estimate that the parasite has colonized between one and two billion people worldwide [34]. However, the pathogenicity of Blastocystis sp. is still uncertain, although some studies have demonstrated possible associations of the parasite to a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) [7, 13, 19]. In contrast, some studies demonstrated that Blastocystis sp. is a common commensal microorganism in the human gut, associated with increased diversity of gut microbiota [4, 6, 46].

Based on analysis of the small subunit (SSU) rRNA gene of Blastocystis sp., at least 28 subtypes (ST1–ST17, ST21, ST23–ST32) have been confirmed in humans and in a variety of animals worldwide [17, 27, 28, 42]. Among them, ST1 to ST9 and ST12 are known to infect humans, while ST1 to ST4 account for more than 90% of human Blastocystis sp. infections [25, 43]. Interestingly, the prevalence of different subtypes seems to vary greatly among different regions and countries [10], and different subtypes demonstrate remarkably diverse biological characteristics, such as pathogenicity, drug resistance, and effects on microbiota [1, 32, 53].

The forest musk deer (Moschus berezovskii) is a small ruminant unique to Asia and belongs to the Moschidae family [12]. Musk deer (Moschus spp.) are an endangered species currently considered class I-protected animals in China. The forest musk deer is the largest musk deer species in China, mainly distributed in Guizhou and Sichuan province [16, 51]. It has been determined that forest musk deer can harbor several zoonotic intestinal pathogens (e.g., Enterocytozoon bieneusi and Giardia duodenalis) and have the ability to transmit these organisms to humans [39]. However, there are no studies focusing on the isolation of Blastocystis sp. from forest musk deer, and whether it is an infection reservoir for other animals and humans remains unclear. In this study, we explored the prevalence and subtype distribution characteristics of Blastocystis sp. in forest musk deer for the first time, emphasizing the potential threat of zoonotic transmission.

Materials and methods

Ethics statement

This study was performed in accordance with the recommendations of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals of the Ministry of Health, China. As only fecal samples collected after spontaneous defecation of forest musk deer were analyzed, this study did not require full Animal Ethics Committee approval in accordance with Chinese law. No animals were harmed during the sampling process. Permission was obtained from farm owners and managers before collection of fecal specimens.

Sample collection

A total of 504 fecal samples from captive forest musk deer was collected from four areas of Sichuan province between August and September 2020 (Fig. 1), with 139 samples collected in Shimian (29°16′ N, 102°20′ E) at an altitude of 2572 m, 144 in Hanyuan (29°29′ N, 102°37′ E) at an altitude of 1076 m, 131 in Dujiangyan (31°01′ N, 103°35′ E) at an altitude of 739 m, and 90 in Maerkang (31°53 N, 102°07′ E) at an altitude of 2526 m (Table 1). The forest musk deer breeding farms were cleaned the night before sampling, and each individual was kept in a separate enclosure so that the fresh feces of each individual could be collected the following morning. All fecal samples were collected by laboratory staff or farmers trained in sample collection, and strict controls were implemented to minimize potential contamination between samples. Approximately 5–10 g of fresh fecal samples were collected using sterile disposal latex gloves after defecation of the forest musk deer, stored in individual plastic bags, with gender, age, and number recorded. During the sample collection process, only the middle layer of feces was collected to avoid contamination. All samples were immediately stored in liquid nitrogen for transportation back to the laboratory and later stored at −80 °C until processing. The animals that had been sampled exhibited no obvious clinical signs.

thumbnail Figure 1

Locations of the sampled sites (filled triangle) in Sichuan Province, Southwestern China.

Table 1

Factors associated with the prevalence of Blastocystis in forest musk deer in China.

DNA extraction

Fecal samples were sieved and washed with distilled water three times by centrifugation at 3000× g for 10 min. Genomic DNA was extracted using a QIAamp Fast DNA Stool Mini Kit (Qiagen, Germany), according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Both negative and positive control stools were included. The DNA was eluted in 200 μL of buffer and stored at –20 °C until use, and the quality of the DNA was verified using NanoDrop (Thermo Fisher Scientific, Carlsbad, CA, USA).

PCR amplification

PCR amplification of the barcode region (a fragment of ~600 bp) of the SSU rRNA gene was used to screen all DNA preparations to identify Blastocystis sp. The cycling parameters and primers were the same as previously described by Scicluna et al. [35]. Taq PCR Master Mix (Sangon Biotech Co., Ltd., Shanghai, China) was used for all PCRs. All PCR tests included positive and negative controls and were performed in triplicate. The PCR products were subjected to 1.5% agarose gel electrophoresis and visualized by staining with SYBR Safe DNA Gel Stain (Thermo Fisher Scientific).

Nucleotide sequencing and analysis

A QIAQuick Gel Extraction Kit (Qiagen) was used to purify PCR products from agarose gel, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The expected product size was ~600 bp. All positive PCR products were bidirectionally sequenced at the BioSune Biotechnology Company (Shanghai, China); A BigDye Terminator v3.1 Cycle Sequencing kit (Applied Biosystems, Waltham, MA, USA) was used. The consensus sequences obtained in our study were submitted to BLAST searches (, then aligned and analyzed. Reference sequences were downloaded from the GenBank database (; we then used Clustal X 2.0 ( to identify the subtypes of Blastocystis sp. The nucleotide sequences generated in this study were deposited in GenBank with the accession numbers OK445532OK445537, and OK445663OK445665.

Partial phylogenetic analysis

To evaluate the genetic relationship among the sequences of Blastocystis sp. genotypes obtained in this study and those identified previously, MEGA 6 software ( was used to construct a neighbor-joining tree for partial phylogenetic analysis. The Kimura 2-parameter model was used to calculate the evolutionary distances. Undefined positions were removed from the alignment before partial phylogenetic analysis, and the alignment was trimmed by MEGA 6. Finally, we assessed the reliability of the trees by Bootstrap analysis (with 1000 replicates).

Statistical analysis

Variations in the prevalence of Blastocystis sp. (y1) in forest musk deer according to geographical location (x1), sex (x2), and age (x3) were analyzed by binary logit model using SPSS 22 ( P-value < 0.05 represented statistical significance (Table 1).


Prevalence of Blastocystis sp. in forest musk deer

A total of 504 fecal samples (144 Hanyuan, 139 Shimian, 131 Dujiangyan, and 90 Maerkang) were screened by PCR amplification to identify Blastocystis sp. The overall prevalence of Blastocystis sp. in forest musk deer was 14.7% (74/504). The highest prevalence was in Dujiangyan at 27.5% (36/131), followed by Maerkang 23.3% (21/90), Shimian 7.9% (11/139), and Hanyuan 4.1% (6/144) (Table 1). There were significant differences in prevalence between the four areas (p < 0.05). The prevalence of Blastocystis sp. among females and males were 48.2% and 51.9%, respectively but there was no significant difference between them (ps > 0.05). Similarly, the differences in prevalence of Blastocystis sp. among forest musk deer of different ages were not statistically significant (p > 0.05).

Subtype distributions of Blastocystis sp. in forest musk deer

Five subtypes of Blastocystis sp. were identified from 74 positive samples, including two potentially zoonotic STs (ST1, ST5) and three animal-specific STs (ST10, ST13, ST14). Although Sanger sequencing cannot identify the subtypes involved in mixed infection and only identified the dominant subtypes in the samples, we believe that there were no mixed infections because there were no ambiguous peaks in the electropherograms. ST10 (36/74) was the dominant subtype found in the forest musk deer examined, followed by ST5 (18/74), ST13 (10/74), ST14 (6/74) and ST1 (4/74) (Table 2). Interestingly, ST1 was found only in forest musk deer in Shimian.

Table 2

Subtype distributions from different locations.

Genetic characteristics of Blastocystis sp. subtypes

Analysis of the SSU rRNA gene revealed that four sequences of ST1 isolate contained two representative sequences, the sequences OK445532 (n = 2) and OK445533 (n = 2). They have 99.82% and 99.65% similarity to the ST1 sequence isolated from humans (MK782501), with one and two nucleotide substitutions, respectively. ST5 sequences (n = 18) showed 100% identity to that of alpaca in China (MN382283). ST10 isolates contained three representative sequences, the sequences OK445536 (n = 2) and OK445537 (n = 4) were identical to sheep from Iran (MW426240) and cattle from Malaysia (MG831508), respectively. The remaining sequence OK445535 (n = 30) showed 99.82% similarity to sika deer from China (MK930355) and white-tailed deer from the USA (MZ267679) with one nucleotide substitution. ST13 isolates (n = 10) contained two representative sequences, the sequence OK445663 (n = 3) showed 100% identity to a sequence that was isolated from crested deer in China (MT889741), and the sequence OK445664 (n = 7) showed 99.82% similarity to a sambar sequence from South Korea (MT114848) with one nucleotide substitution. ST14 sequences (n = 6) exhibited 100% identity to that of sheep in China (MT672788) and the Czech Republic (MT039559).

Partial phylogenetic analysis of Blastocystis sp.

Nine representative sequences were obtained from the 74 Blastocystis sp. isolates in this study. These newly identified sequences showed high similarity to reference sequences of Blastocystis sp. in GenBank, and belong to ST1, ST5, ST10, ST13 and ST14. The ST1 found in this study clustered together with sequences originating from humans and cattle. ST5 is grouped with sequences that are mainly from sheep and alpaca. ST10 clustered with sequences from sheep, sika deer, alpaca, cattle, and white-tailed deer, while ST13 grouped with sequences isolated from crested deer, Tibetan antelope, reindeer and sambar. ST14 formed a clade with sequences from sheep (Fig. 2).

thumbnail Figure 2

Partial Phylogenetic relationships among nucleotide sequences of Blastocystis sp. partial small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) genes. The neighbor-joining method was used to construct the trees by the Kimura-2-parameter model. The numbers on the branches are percent bootstrap support values from 1000 replicates; only values of more than 50% are shown on the tree. Each sequence is identified by its accession number, subtype, host origin, and country. Sequences marked with black triangles are representative sequences identified in this study.


Blastocystis sp. is one of the most common parasites and is distributed globally. Epidemiological studies of Blastocystis sp. in wild ruminants, such as takin, bushbuck, red deer, fallow deer, white-lipped deer, giraffe and reindeer, have been reported, but there is no research on captive forest musk deer [18]. The prevalence of Blastocystis sp. in forest musk deer examined in this study was 14.7% (74/504), which is lower than that previously found in wild takin in China (57.1%, 28/49) [56], wild Père David’s deer in China (56.3%, 72/128) [29], wild Korean water deer in Korea (40.8%, 51/125) [21], farmed Alpine musk deer in northwestern China (39.8%, 80/201) [49], farmed goats in Malaysia (30.9%, 73/236) [45], and farmed camels in Libya (24%, 47/196) [3]. However, the prevalence is higher than that observed in farmed sika deer in northeastern China (14.6%, 12/82) [47], wild reindeer in China (6.73%, 7/104) [48], farmed sika deer in northern China (0.8%, 6/760) [30], and farmed goats in Nepal (0.75%, 3/400) [15]. The reason for the different prevalence of Blastocystis sp. may be due to the captive conditions, management methods, the size of the examined samples, the animal species and different countries.

In this study, we found no statistical differences in the prevalence of Blastocystis sp. among females and males, nor between age groups (p > 0.05). However, the infection prevalence in forest musk deer examined was significantly different depending on the geographical area of origin in Sichuan Province (p < 0.05), with the highest prevalence (27.5%) in Dujiangyan and the lowest (4.1%) in Hanyuan. Previous reports have observed similar differences in the prevalence of this protist in cattle between different regions of China [57]. The different Blastocystis sp. prevalence may be related to the farm management methods and sanitary conditions in distinct regions. The higher prevalence in Dujiangyan and Maerkang is due to the lack of good immunization programs and deworming, as well as relatively poor hygiene conditions.

Five Blastocystis sp. subtypes (ST1, ST5, ST10, ST13 and ST14) were identified in 74 Blastocystis sp.-positive fecal samples from forest musk deer (Table 2). Maloney et al. used PCR and next generation amplicon sequencing to determine the occurrence and subtypes of Blastocystis sp. in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) [27]. Ten previously reported subtypes (ST1, ST3, ST4, ST10, ST14, ST21, and ST23–ST26) and two novel subtypes (ST30 and ST31) were identified [27]. However, except for ST1, ST10 and ST14, none of the other subtypes found in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were identified in this study. Similarly, Ni et al used amplification of the SSU rDNA gene to confirm the presence of Blastocystis sp. infection in Père David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus) in the National Nature Reserve of Shishou, Hubei Province of China [29]. Five known subtypes, which consisted of one zoonotic subtype (ST10) and four ruminant-specific subtypes (ST21, ST23, ST25, and ST26), were identified [29]. However, except for ST10, the other subtypes found in Père David’s deer were not found in forest musk deer in this study.

In China, ST10 is the main subtype in animal infection [26, 33, 38, 56, 57], followed by ST5 [37], and the results of the present study are in line with this conclusion. Zoonotic STs can be transmitted between humans and animals, and some animal-origin STs are linked to human infections [24, 36, 58]. One potentially zoonotic subtype identified in this study, ST1, has been reported as one of the most widespread subtypes in humans [50]. Previous studies have shown that the Blastocystis sp. subtypes ST1, ST2 and ST3 were commonly identified in primate hosts [11, 31, 55]. ST1 is also found in ruminants around the world, such as sika deer in China [9] and white-tailed deer in the United States [27]. Subtype ST1 was found in forest musk deer in this study (Table 2). Interestingly, the ST1 subtype variant detected in this study from Shimian farm forest musk deer showed high similarity with known sequences from humans in China (MT645672), emphasizing that these STs have the potential for zoonotic transmission. ST5, another zoonotic subtype detected in this study, is the dominant subtype infecting hoofed animals like pigs and cattle worldwide [2, 5, 37, 50, 54]. Additionally, ST5 has also been detected in humans with animal contact history, demonstrating that this subtype has zoonotic transmission risk [41, 52]. For instance, ST5 has been detected in both pigs and humans in Jiangxi province, where children and pigs sometimes share common outdoor areas [52].

In contrast, although ST10 has rarely been detected in humans, it is very prevalent in Artiodactyla [3, 18, 50], such as waterbuck in Bangladesh [24], takin, yak, bushbuck, eland and reindeer in China [48, 56], and roe deer in Denmark [40]. The results of this study indicate that ST10 was the most prevalent Blastocystis sp. ST in forest musk deer, which is consistent with the previously reported dominance of ST10 in Artiodactyla [56]. Moreover, as ST10 was identified in all four forest musk deer farms, ST10 distribution is not limited to certain geographic locations and has a wider range than reported [3]. Surprisingly, ST13, relatively rare in this study, was also detected in a mouse deer in the United Kingdom [3] and Java mouse-deer in France [8]. So far, ST14 has mostly been detected in Artiodactyla such as sheep, camels, mouflon and cattle [3, 14, 26, 56]. A recent study reported that ST10 and ST14 can also infect humans [20].


This study determined the occurrence, subtype distribution and genetic characteristics of Blastocystis sp. for the first time in captive forest musk deer in China. The data showed that five subtypes of Blastocystis sp. including two zoonotic subtypes (ST1 and ST5) can infect forest musk deer. These findings provide fundamental data for monitoring and exploring the transmission routes of Blastocystis sp. between forest musk deer and humans.


PCR: Polymerase chain reaction;

STs: Subtypes;

SSU rRNA: Small subunit ribosomal RNA;

IBS: Irritable bowel syndrome;

IBD: Inflammatory bowel disease;

ORs: Odds ratios.


These authors contributed equally to this work.


We are very grateful to Liuchao You, Lian You, Han Dai and Xin Yu for their contribution to the comments on the manuscript, as well as to the assistance of the farm staff in sampling process and the help of Lijuan Liu, Yu Zeng and Wenqing Zhang in sample processing.

Authors’ contributions

Conceptualization, LD and GP; Data curation, ZZ (Ziyao Zhou), SC (Suizhong Cao), XM and LS; Formal analysis, SC (Shanyu Chen); Investigation, WM; Resources, XS, YC, HL, ZZ (Zhijun Zhong) and HF; Software, SC (Shanyu Chen); Supervision, GP; Writing – original draft, SC (Shanyu Chen); Writing – review & editing, ZZ (Zhijun Zhong), HF, LD and GP. All authors have read and approved the manuscript.


This work was funded by the Special Fund for Forestry Reform and Development of Wolong Special Administrative Region of Sichuan Province (510000-02-064387).

Availability of data and materials

The nucleotide sequences generated in the present study have been deposited in GenBank ( under accession numbers OK445532OK445537, and OK445663OK445665. The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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Cite this article as: Chen S, Meng W, Shi X, Chai Y, Zhou Z, Liu H, Zhong Z, Fu H, Cao S, Ma X, Shen L, Deng L & Peng G. 2022. Occurrence, genetic diversity and zoonotic potential of Blastocystis sp. in forest musk deer (Moschus berezovskii) in Southwest China. Parasite 29, 34.

All Tables

Table 1

Factors associated with the prevalence of Blastocystis in forest musk deer in China.

Table 2

Subtype distributions from different locations.

All Figures

thumbnail Figure 1

Locations of the sampled sites (filled triangle) in Sichuan Province, Southwestern China.

In the text
thumbnail Figure 2

Partial Phylogenetic relationships among nucleotide sequences of Blastocystis sp. partial small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) genes. The neighbor-joining method was used to construct the trees by the Kimura-2-parameter model. The numbers on the branches are percent bootstrap support values from 1000 replicates; only values of more than 50% are shown on the tree. Each sequence is identified by its accession number, subtype, host origin, and country. Sequences marked with black triangles are representative sequences identified in this study.

In the text

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