UNLABELLED: Parasites and their hosts are engaged in rapid coevolution that balances competing mechanisms of virulence, resistance, and evasion. This often leads to host specificity, but genomic reassortment between different strains can enable parasites to jump host barriers and conquer new niches. In the apicomplexan parasite Cryptosporidium genetic exchange has been hypothesized to play a prominent role in adaptation to humans. The sexual lifecycle of the parasite provides a potential mechanism for such exchange; however, the boundaries of Cryptosporidium sex are currently undefined. To explore this experimentally, we established a model for genetic crosses. Drug resistance was engineered using a mutated phenylalanyl tRNA synthetase gene and marking strains with this and the previously used Neo transgene enabled selection of recombinant progeny. This is highly efficient, and genomic recombination is evident and can be continuously monitored in real time by drug resistance, flow cytometry, and PCR mapping. Using this approach multiple loci can now be modified with ease. We demonstrate that essential genes can be ablated by crossing a Cre recombinase driver strain with floxed strains. We further find that genetic crosses are also feasible between species. Crossing C. parvum, a parasite of cattle and humans, and C. tyzzeri a mouse parasite resulted in progeny with a recombinant genome derived from both species that continues to vigorously replicate sexually. These experiments have important fundamental and translational implications for the evolution of Cryptosporidium and open the door to reverse- and forward-genetic analysis of parasite biology and host specificity.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The parasite Cryptosporidium is a leading cause of diarrheal disease. While infection is common all around the world, young children experiencing malnutrition are impacted most profoundly, and the disease is an important contributor to early childhood mortality. This study experimentally demonstrates that different strains and even species of Cryptosporidium can recombine their genomes through sex. The progeny of such genetic crosses shows combined features of both parents, with resistance to multiple drugs being one example. Sex thus provides a critical mechanism for the parasite to rapidly adapt to changing environments and hosts. Genetic crosses as an experimental tool may also be harnessed in the future to discover the genes underlying differences in virulence, drug sensitivity, and immunogenicity between parasite isolates.