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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Local and systemic gene expression responses of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) to infection with the salmon louse (Lepeophtheirus salmonis)

Stanko Skugor1*, Kevin Alan Glover2, Frank Nilsen23 and Aleksei Krasnov1

Author Affiliations

1 Nofima Akvaforsk Fiskeriforskning, P.O.Box 5010, Ås 1430, Norway

2 Institute of Marine Research, PO Box 1870, Nordnes, 5817 Bergen, Norway

3 Department of Biology, University of Bergen, Box 7800 N-5020 Bergen, Norway

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:498  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-498

Published: 23 October 2008



The salmon louse (SL) is an ectoparasitic caligid crustacean infecting salmonid fishes in the marine environment. SL represents one of the major challenges for farming of salmonids, and veterinary intervention is necessary to combat infection. This study addressed gene expression responses of Atlantic salmon infected with SL, which may account for its high susceptibility.


The effects of SL infection on gene expression in Atlantic salmon were studied throughout the infection period from copepodids at 3 days post infection (dpi) to adult lice (33 dpi). Gene expression was analyzed at three developmental stages in damaged and intact skin, spleen, head kidney and liver, using real-time qPCR and a salmonid cDNA microarray (SFA2). Rapid detection of parasites was indicated by the up-regulation of immunoglobulins in the spleen and head kidney and IL-1 receptor type 1, CD4, beta-2-microglobulin, IL-12β, CD8α and arginase 1 in the intact skin of infected fish. Most immune responses decreased at 22 dpi, however, a second activation was observed at 33 dpi. The observed pattern of gene expression in damaged skin suggested the development of inflammation with signs of Th2-like responses. Involvement of T cells in responses to SL was witnessed with up-regulation of CD4, CD8α and programmed death ligand 1. Signs of hyporesponsive immune cells were seen. Cellular stress was prevalent in damaged skin as seen by highly significant up-regulation of heat shock proteins, other chaperones and mitochondrial proteins. Induction of the major components of extracellular matrix, TGF-β and IL-10 was observed only at the adult stage of SL. Taken together with up-regulation of matrix metalloproteinases (MMP), this classifies the wounds afflicted by SL as chronic. Overall, the gene expression changes suggest a combination of chronic stress, impaired healing and immunomodulation. Steady increase of MMP expression in all tissues except liver was a remarkable feature of SL infected fish.


SL infection in Atlantic salmon is associated with a rapid induction of mixed inflammatory responses, followed by a period of hyporesponsiveness and delayed healing of injuries. Persistent infection may lead to compromised host immunity and tissue self-destruction.