A Babesia sp. isolated from eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) is morphologically similar and genetically identical, based on SSU rRNA gene comparisons, to 2 agents responsible for human babesiosis in the United States. This zoonotic agent is closely related to the European parasite, Babesia divergens. The 2 organisms were characterized by in vitro comparisons. In vitro growth of the rabbit Babesia sp. was supported in human and cottontail rabbit erythrocytes, but not in bovine cells. Babesia divergens was supported in vitro in bovine and human erythrocytes, but not in cottontail rabbit cells. Morphometric analysis classifies B. divergens as a small babesia in bovine erythrocytes, but the parasite exceeds this size in human erythrocytes. The rabbit Babesia sp. is large, the same size in both human or rabbit erythrocytes, and is significantly larger than B. divergens. Eight or more rabbit Babesia sp. parasites may occur within a single erythrocyte, sometimes in a floret array, unlike B. divergens. The erythrocyte specificity and morphological differences reported in this study agree with previous in vivo results and validate the use of in vitro methods for characterization of Babesia species.
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