Obligate Intracellular Parasite: Definition, Characteristics, and Examples

Obligate Intracellular Parasite: Definition, Characteristics, and Examples

Parasites are organisms that derive biological benefits at the expense of the hosts they infect. These organisms can be classified in a variety of ways depending on their mode of infection. This Buzzle article explores the category of obligate intracellular parasite and elucidates its characteristics with the help of examples.
It is a theory that explains the evolution of eukaryotes from prokaryotes by the formation of a mutualistic relationship with an intracellular parasite, which later transformed and evolved to become the present-day mitochondria.
Parasites can be broadly divided into two categories based on their location within a host, post infection. If the parasitic organisms are present in the extracellular spaces between the cells of the host organism, they are said to be intercellular parasites. On the other hand, if they penetrate the host cells, they are said to be intracellular parasites, and can be further divided into two types - obligate and facultative.

Facultative parasite is an organism that does not rely on the host for completing its life cycle, but displays parasitism to derive nutrition from the host. In other words, it grows and reproduces on its own, but depends on the host cell as a nutrient and energy source. In contrast, an obligate parasite not only depends on the host for nutrition, but also for the purpose of reproduction. These organisms infect the host cell and utilize the internal-cellular machinery of the host to replicate themselves. After the parasite has reproduced itself multiple times, the progeny are released by rupturing the host cell's membrane. This leads to the lysis (death) of the host cell.


This form of parasitism is exhibited by a wide range of organisms that include viruses, bacteria, fungi, and mold. They infect other organisms in order to complete their life cycle. This is so, because the progression of their life stages is highly specific and dependent on the host organisms. Some complete their life cycles within a single host and are said to have direct life cycles (e.g., Necator americanus), whereas few others need at least 2 or more hosts in a particular order, and they are said to possess indirect or complex life cycles (e.g., Plasmodium falciparum).

Since the organisms depend on the host cell for nutrition, they must keep it alive and viable for as long as possible till their own life cycle has been completed. This is seen in the case of lytic viral infection of a host cell. The virus infects the cell and takes over the cellular functioning, but it does not harm the cell till it has reproduced and replicated repeatedly. This goes on till the sheer number of the progeny causes the cell membrane to rupture (cell explodes) and release the offspring.

Invasion of Host Cell
A variety of mechanisms are employed by the obligate parasites to invade the host cell and then evade its immune response. Since the parasites are usually smaller in size, they rely on either passive or active uptake by the host cell. Viruses only insert their genetic material in the host cell, where it gets incorporated into the host's genome. Other parasites bear markers on their surface which are similar to the ones on the surface of host cells. Since they evade the immune system, the presence and proliferation of these parasites gives rise to a multitude of health disorders within the host.

Change in Host Behavior
The infection by an obligate parasite that follows a complex life cycle modifies the cellular chemistry of the host. This in turn allows the parasite to manipulate the behavior of the host in order to facilitate its transfer to the next host required to complete its life cycle. This is observed in the case of Toxoplasma gondii. It requires two hosts for the completion of its life cycle. Any warm-bodied animal can be used as the initial host during its asexual phase. Mostly rats are carriers of this parasite since they live in sewers and ingest fecal matter. The parasite induces the production of a chemical within the rat that causes the rat to be attracted to (instead of being repelled by) the odor of cat urine. This attraction causes it to seek out places populated with cats, and cat being the natural predator of rat, preys on the infected rat while also consuming the parasite. Here, in the cat's system, the asexual parasite completes the sexual part of its life cycle.


All viruses are obligate intracellular parasites as they cannot reproduce outside the host cell, e.g., bacteriophages, AIDS virus (HIV), human papilloma virus (HPV), tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), etc., at all.

Sarcobium lyticum infects small amoebae.

Chlamydia trachomatis causes a sexually-transmitted disease of the same name as its genus, in humans. It also causes nongonococcal urethritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and trachoma.

Rickettsia prowazekii infection causes typhus fever in humans.

Inhalation of Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes tuberculosis, a disease that affects the lungs.

14 genera of microsporidia parasites infect a variety of fish. For example, Glugea infects flounder, Loma infects Atlantic cod, salmon, and rainbow trout, Nosemoides infects cichlids, etc.

Pneumocystis jirovecii infects humans and causes pneumonia.

Plasmodium falciparum causes malaria in humans.

Leishmania spp. cause leishmaniasis in humans.

Despite having recognized the type of parasitism exhibited by these organisms, the exact mechanism employed by them to invade the host cell and evade elimination via the immune system, is yet to be fully deciphered. The knowledge of these mechanisms would prove immensely beneficial in understanding the regulation of cellular mechanisms and subsequently applying them in the fields of personalized medicine, biomimicry, etc.