Immunocytochemical, light microscopy and ultrastructural studies were conducted on gill of sea bream, Sparus aurata L., naturally parasitized with the important parasitic copepod Ergasilus sp. to assess pathology and cellular responses. Thirty-seven S. aurata were examined from a fish farm; 26 (70%) were parasitized, with infection intensity ranging from 3 to 55 parasites per fish. Hosts were divided into two groups, lightly infected fish (<15 parasites per fish) and heavily infected fish (>15 parasites per fish). In histological sections, the copepod encircled gill lamellae with its second antennae, compressed the epithelium, provoked hyperplasia and hemorrhage, occluded arteries and often caused lamellar disruption. Fusion of the secondary lamellae due to epithelial hyperplasia was common in all infected fish; heavily infected fish showed more intense branchial inflammation. In both healthy and infected fish, mast cells (MCs) were free within the connective tissue inside and outside the blood vessels of the primary lamellae and made close contact with vascular endothelial cells, mucous cells and rodlet cells (RCs). MCs were irregular in shape with a cytoplasm filled by numerous electron-dense, membrane-bound granules. Immunostaining of primary and secondary gill filaments with an antibody against the antimicrobial peptide (AMP) piscidin 3 (anti-piscidin 3 antibody, anti-HAGR) revealed a subpopulation of MCs that were positive. These MCs were more abundant in gills of heavily infected fish than in either lightly infected or uninfected fish (ANOVA, P < 0.05). Our report documents the response of gill to ectoparasite infection and provides further evidence that mast cells and their AMPs may play a role in responding to branchial ectoparasite infections.
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