In vivo analysis of Trypanosoma cruzi persistence foci at single cell resolution
Infections with Trypanosoma cruzi are usually life-long despite generating a strong adaptive immune response. Identifying the sites of parasite persistence is therefore crucial to understand how T. cruzi avoids immune-mediated destruction. However, this is a major technical challenge because the parasite burden during chronic infections is extremely low. Here, we describe an integrated approach involving comprehensive tissue processing, ex vivo imaging, and confocal microscopy, which has allowed us to visualise infected host cells in murine tissue, with exquisite sensitivity. Using bioluminescence-guided tissue sampling, with a detection level of <20 parasites, we show that in the colon, smooth muscle myocytes in the circular muscle layer are the most common infected host cell type. Typically, during chronic infections, the entire colon of a mouse contains only a few hundred parasites, often concentrated in a small number of cells containing >200 parasites, that we term mega-nests. In contrast, during the acute stage, when the total parasite burden is considerably higher and many cells are infected, nests containing >50 parasites are rarely found. In C3H/HeN mice, but not BALB/c, we identified skeletal muscle as a major site of persistence during the chronic stage, with most parasites found in large mega-nests within the muscle fibres. Finally, we report that parasites are also frequently found in the skin during chronic murine infections, often in multiple infection foci. In addition to being a site of parasite persistence, this anatomical reservoir could play an important role in insect-mediated transmission, and have implications for drug development.