Equine grass sickness (a multiple systems neuropathy) is associated with alterations in the gastrointestinal mycobiome

Bruce McGorum, Zihao Chen, Laura Glendinning, Hyus S. Gweon, Luanne Hunt, Alasdair Ivens, John Keen, Scott Pirie, Joanne Taylor, Toby Wilkinson, Gerry McLachlan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Background: Equine grass sickness (EGS) is a multiple systems neuropathy of grazing horses of unknown aetiology. An apparently identical disease occurs in cats, dogs, rabbits, hares, sheep, alpacas and llamas. Many of the risk factors for EGS are consistent with it being a pasture mycotoxicosis. To identify potential causal fungi, the gastrointestinal mycobiota of EGS horses were evaluated using targeted amplicon sequencing, and compared with those of two control groups. Samples were collected post mortem from up to 5 sites in the gastrointestinal tracts of EGS horses (EGS group; 150 samples from 54 horses) and from control horses that were not grazing EGS pastures and that had been euthanased for reasons other than neurologic and gastrointestinal diseases (CTRL group; 67 samples from 31 horses). Faecal samples were also collected from healthy control horses that were co-grazing pastures with EGS horses at disease onset (CoG group; 48 samples from 48 horses).
Results: Mycobiota at all 5 gastrointestinal sites comprised large numbers of fungi exhibiting diverse taxonomy, growth morphology, trophic mode and ecological guild. FUNGuild analysis parsed most phylotypes as ingested environmental microfungi, agaricoids and yeasts, with only 1% as gastrointestinal adapted animal endosymbionts. Mycobiota richness varied throughout the gastrointestinal tract and was greater in EGS horses. There were significant inter-group and inter-site differences in mycobiota structure. A large number of phylotypes were differentially abundant among groups. Key phylotypes (n=56) associated with EGS were identified that had high abundance and high prevalence in EGS samples, significantly increased abundance in EGS samples, and were important determinants of the inter-group differences in mycobiota structure. Many key phylotypes were extremophiles and/or were predicted to produce cytotoxic and/or neurotoxic extrolites.
Conclusions: This is the first reported molecular characterisation of the gastrointestinal mycobiota of grazing horses. Key phylotypes associated with EGS were identified. Further work is required to determine whether neurotoxic extrolites from key phylotypes contribute to EGS aetiology or whether the association of key phylotypes and EGS is a consequence of disease or is non-causal.
Original languageEnglish
Article number70
JournalAnimal Microbiome
Issue number1
Early online date9 Oct 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Oct 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'Equine grass sickness (a multiple systems neuropathy) is associated with alterations in the gastrointestinal mycobiome'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this