The development of two diagnostic tests has led to the discovery of a mycobacterium which causes disease in both cod and salmon and has never been detected in Norway before.

Mycobacterium salmoniphilum colonies on Middlebrook 7H10 agar (Photo: M. A. Zerihun)Reports submitted to the authorities of mycobacteriosis (tuberculosis) in fish have been sporadic and have only stemmed from aquarium fish or wild fish, not farmed fish. This is probably due to underdiagnosis. Adam Zerihun's doctoral research has led to the development of two methods of diagnosis based on real-time PCR and immunohistochemistry respectively. The tests are extremely sensitive and have been instrumental in detecting a mycobacterium that has never been found in Norway before. The bacterium was found both in farmed salmon and in burbot and experimental infection showed that Atlantic cod was very susceptible to the bacterium and became diseased. The isolated bacterium was identified as Mycobacterium salmoniphilum.

Immunohistochemically stained Sea bass spleen tissue infected with Mycobacterium marinum (Photo: M. A. Zerihun)In cod and burbot infected with M. salmoniphilum, Zerihun discovered serious nodules, while only small or no such changes were found in infected Atlantic salmon. The formation of nodules in cod was shown to undergo several phases of development. The identification and characterization of these different stages are important for the appraisal of disease development and in order to estimate the time of infection. Zerihun's study indicates that the occurrence of the disease in farmed Atlantic salmon and in cod is more widespread than previously thought, both with regard to the range of host and climate variations.

Since the formation of nodules is not a typical symptom in salmon infected with M. salmoniphilum, it is highly probable that many cases of tuberculosis in salmon remain undiscovered. Fish that lose weight without there being any apparent disease or specific cause are classified in fish farming as "lost fish". A mycobacterial infection can be lurking behind various different symptoms, where weight loss is one characteristic.

Granulomas in Atlantic cod gills infected with Mycobacterium salmoniphilum (Photo: M. A. Zerihun)For this reason, many salmon infected with tuberculosis can be the undetected reason for losses in the industry. The stress that arises when many fish are kept in closely packed surroundings weakens their immune system and allows mycobacteria to reproduce in many individuals. These factors are known to promote the occurrence of mycobacteriosis.

DVM Mulualem Adam Zerihun defended his doctoral research on 11th January 2013 at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science with a thesis entitled: “Mycobacteriosis in marine and freshwater fishes: characterization of the disease and identification of the infectious agents”.

Mulualem Adam Zerihun was born in Ethiopia and qualified as a veterinary surgeon at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany in 1989.  He has worked as a district veterinary surgeon, ranch manager and researcher in Ethiopia Mulualem Adam Zerihunand as a researcher at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute in Oslo since 2004, where he was a research fellow from 2006-2010.

Contact information:
Mulualem Adam Zerihun
Tel.: + 47 67 53 92 95
Tel. work: + 47 23 21 64 40
Mobile: + 47 415 09 453

Magnhild Jenssen, Information Officer at NVH
Tel.: +47 77 66 54 01
Mobile: +47 957 94 830