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Keywords:

  • coevolution;
  • evolution of virulence;
  • gene for gene;
  • genetic variation;
  • genotype-by-genotype;
  • malaria;
  • Plasmodium chabaudi;
  • reaction norm;
  • resistance

Abstract

A rich body of theory on the evolution of virulence (disease severity) attempts to predict the conditions that cause parasites to harm their hosts, and a central assumption to many of these models is that the relative virulence of pathogen strains is stable across a range of host types. In contrast, a largely nonoverlapping body of theory on coevolution assumes that the fitness effects of parasites on hosts is not stable across host genotype, but instead depends on host genotype by parasite genotype interactions. If such genetic interactions largely determine virulence, it becomes difficult to predict the strength and direction of selection on virulence. In this study, we tested for host-by-parasite interactions in a medically relevant vertebrate disease model: the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium chabaudi in laboratory mice. We found that parasite and particularly host main effects explained most of the variance in virulence (anaemia and weight loss), resistance (parasite burden) and transmission potential. Host-by-parasite interactions were of limited influence, but nevertheless had significant effects. This raises the possibility that host heterogeneity may affect the rate of any parasite response to selection on virulence. This study of rodent malaria is one of the first tests for host-by-parasite interactions in any vertebrate disease; host-by-parasite interactions typical of those assumed in coevolutionary models were present, but were by no means pervasive.