We examined the in vivo growth, dissemination, and reactivation of strains of the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii using a bioluminescence-based imaging system. Two T. gondii strains, one with a highly virulent disease phenotype in mice (S23) and the other with a 1,000-fold-lower virulence phenotype (S22), were engineered to stably express the light-emitting protein luciferase. One clone of each wild-type strain was isolated, and the two clones (S23-luc7 and S22-luc2) were found to express similar levels of luciferase. Mice were infected intraperitoneally with S23-luc7 (50 or 5 parasites) or S22-luc2 (500, 50, or 5 parasites), and the progress of the infections was examined noninvasively following injection of the substrate for luciferase, D-luciferin. In mice infected with 50 S23-luc7 parasites, the parasites grew exponentially within the peritoneal cavity (as measured by light emitted from luciferase-expressing parasites) during days 1 to 10 p.i., and this proliferation continued until there was severe disease. In mice infected with 500 S22-luc2 parasites, the parasites proliferated in a fashion similar to the S23-luc7 proliferation during days 1 to 6, but this was followed by a precipitous drop in the signal to levels below the limit of detection. Using this technique, we were also able to observe the process of reactivation of T. gondii in chronically infected mice. After treatment with dexamethasone, we detected reactivation of toxoplasmosis in mice infected with S23-luc7 and S22-luc2. During reactivation, growth of S23-luc7 was initially detected primarily in the head and neck area, while in S22-luc2-infected mice the parasites were detected primarily in the abdomen. This method has great potential for identifying important differences in the dissemination and growth of different T. gondii strains, especially strains with dramatically different disease outcomes.
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