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Misclassified for centuries, medicinal leeches found to be 3 distinct species

ome legitimate, many not. Demand for leeches in 19th-century Europe grew so intense that efforts to protect them led to the some of the earliest legislative efforts at biological conservation.

Leeches are still afforded protection by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and are regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the Berne Convention, and the European Union Habitat Directive.

Commercially available European medicinal leeches also are used extensively by biomedical researchers studying biological processes such as blood coagulation, developmental genetics and neurobiology. Studies of commercial specimens have figured prominently in the discovery and production of anticoagulants and protease inhibitors, some of which may have cancer-fighting properties.

That researchers have been mistakenly using Hirudo verbana in their work for decades may call much of this research, including hundreds of scientific publications, into question and force a reconsideration of what scientists think they know about this widely studied species.

Siddall and his colleagues examined mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of wild leeches from across their range in Europe, as well as from samples supplied by commercial providers and university laboratories that use leeches as model organisms.

Their analysis clearly showed that the commercial and laboratory specimens were not Hirudo medicinalis, as they were labeled, but Hirudo verbana. In addition, the work showed that the specimens of wild European medicinal leeches clearly comprised three genetically distinct species.
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Source:National Science Foundation


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