Scientists might have the clue in what’s killing chimps in West Africa

Chimpanzees are our closest evolutionary cousins who are currently inhabiting the continent of Africa. Their population is seeing a huge decline due to various activities influenced by human beings. In addition to this, disease ecologist Tony Goldberg found out that in 2016 a mysterious illness is adding the burden to the population of chimps at a lush sanctuary in Sierra Leone’s rainforest. He says chimps would stagger and stumble, vomit, and have diarrhea. He adds that they would go to bed healthy and be dead in the morning. The veterinarians would treat them with antibiotics, fluids and also cover them with warm blankets. Affected chimps were even isolated to curb the spread but nothing helped and Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary lost 53 chimps between 2005 and 2018.

The refuge sanctuary is home to around 100 chimps who are rescued from illegal trade, hunting, and abandoned as pets. With no end in sight to save the chimps biologist, Greg Tully sought the help of Goldberg to identify the culprit behind the deaths.

Ater studying samples and DNA from the sanctuary the teams now hope, they might found one. The findings were published in Nature communications and states that a new clover-shaped bacterium infected tissues of 13 chimps that died whereas nothing found was found in the healthier Chimps. The mysterious disease which manifests gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms has not affected any humans so far.

Scientists worry that it might jump between apes and humans as the bacterium is said to be closely related to Sarcina ventriculi a rare bacterium that causes gastrointestinal disease in humans, cattle, cats, and horses. Moreover, the spreading of this bacterium to other sanctuaries that hold chimpanzees can be devastating to their populations. Veterinary epidemiologists also add that these sanctuaries are most vulnerable to pathogens transmitted by air.

The breakthrough

The big breakthrough of the study came in 2018 when Leah Owens, a graduate student of Goldberg spotted the strange looking organism in the brain of the deceased chimpanzee. This big finding came after years of analyzing fecal samples, blood, and tissue sections with zero clues. Owen later realized the organism might be a clover-shaped bacterium Sacrina confirmed by pathologists.

On sequencing the organism it closely matched with Sacrina ventriculi yet distinct enough to be its species. Scientists propose that it can be named Sarcina troglodytae after the binomial name of Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes. Further DNA studies also show us that the bacterium is more virulent than the counterpart. The team also speculates that some of Sacrina ventriculi in animals might belong to this new bacterium.

As of now, Owens is applying for grants to identify the source of the bacterium in water, air, and vegetation. One possibility can be that the bacteria are already present in environments abundantly and the change in the physiology due to seasonal variation might trigger the disease.

This possibility needs more insight through research to prove its authenticity. Back in sanctuary veterinarians are treating the chimp with antibiotics, antacids, and anticonvulsives in a similar way to humans to save the ailing chimps. Meanwhile, researchers are also testing other chimps in various sanctuaries for the infection. More research and findings will help our closest evolutionary cousins from this deadly disease.

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Source: Science

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