Within the vertebrate host, infections of a malaria parasite (Plasmodium) could include a single genotype of cells (single-clone infections) or two to several genotypes (multiclone infections). Clonal diversity of infection plays an important role in the biology of the parasite, including its life history, virulence, and transmission. We determined the clonal diversity of Plasmodium mexicanum, a lizard malaria parasite at a study region in northern California, using variable microsatellite markers, the first such study for any malaria parasite of lizards or birds (the most common hosts for Plasmodium species). Multiclonal infections are common (50–88% of infections among samples), and measures of genetic diversity for the metapopulation (expected heterozygosity, number of alleles per locus, allele length variation, and effective population size) all indicated a substantial overall genetic diversity. Comparing years with high prevalence (1996–1998 = 25–32% lizards infected), and years with low prevalence (2001–2005 = 6–12%) found fewer alleles in samples taken from the low-prevalence years, but no reduction in overall diversity (H = 0.64–0.90 among loci). In most cases, rare alleles appeared to be lost as prevalence declined. For sites chronically experiencing low transmission intensity (prevalence ~1%), overall diversity was also high (H = 0.79–0.91), but there were fewer multiclonal infections. Theory predicts an apparent excess in expected heterozygosity follows a genetic bottleneck. Evidence for such a distortion in genetic diversity was observed after the drop in parasite prevalence under the infinite alleles mutation model but not for the stepwise mutation model. The results are similar to those reported for the human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, worldwide, and support the conclusion that malaria parasites maintain high genetic diversity in host populations despite the potential for loss in alleles during the transmission cycle or during periods/locations when transmission intensity is low.
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