Lepeophtheirus salmonis and Caligus elongatus are important parasites of wild and cultured salmonids in the Northern Hemisphere. These species, generically referred to as sea lice, are estimated to cost the Scottish aquaculture industry in excess of pound 25 million per annum. There is great interest in countries such as Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Canada to sample sea lice larvae in their natural environment in order to understand lice larvae distribution and improve parasite control. Microscopy is currently relied on for use in the routine identification of sea lice larvae in plankton samples. This method is, however, limited by its time-consuming nature and requirement for highly skilled personnel. The development of alternative methods for the detection of sea lice larvae which might be used to complement and support microscopic examinations of environmental samples is thus desirable. In this study, a genetic method utilising a real-time PCR Taqman-MGB probe-based assay targeting the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase I (mtCOI) gene was developed, which allowed species-specific detection of L. salmonis and C. elongatus larvae from unsorted natural and spiked plankton samples. Real-time PCR is a rapid, sensitive, highly specific and potentially quantitative technique. This study demonstrated its suitability for the routine identification of L. salmonis and C. elongatus in mixed plankton samples. The real-time PCR assay developed has considerable potential for use in complementing, supporting and reducing reliance on time-consuming conventional microscopic examination for the specific identification of sea lice larvae in plankton samples.
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