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Keywords:

  • coevolution;
  • disease;
  • genetic variation;
  • pathogen;
  • Red Queen;
  • resistance;
  • selection

It has long been recognized that reciprocal antagonism might lock host and parasite populations into a process of constant change, adapting and reacting in open-ended coevolution. A significant body of theory supports this intuition: dynamic genetic polymorphisms are a common outcome of computer simulations of host–parasite coevolution. These in silico experiments have also shown that dynamical interactions could be responsible for high levels of genetic diversity in host populations, and even be the principle determinant of rates of genetic recombination and sexuality. The evolutionary significance of parasitism depends on the strength and prevalence of parasite-mediated selection in nature. Here I appraise whether parasitism is a pervasive agent of evolutionary change by detailing empirical evidence for selection. Although there is considerable evidence of genetic variation for resistance, and hence the potential for selection, direct observation of parasite-driven genetic change is lacking.