Pesticide exposure strongly enhances parasite virulence in an invertebrate host model


  • Anja Coors,

  • Ellen Decaestecker,

  • Mieke Jansen,

  • Luc De Meester

A. Coors (, E. Decaestecker, M. Jansen and L. De Meester, Lab. of Aquatic Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Katholieke Univ. Leuven, Ch. De Bériotstraat 32, BE-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Present address for AC: ECT Oekotoxikologie GmbH, Boettgerstr. 2-14, DE-65439 Flörsheim a. M., Germany.


Parasites are a common and constant threat to organisms at all levels of phyla. The virulence of a parasite, defined as the impact on survival and reproduction of its host, depends on the specific host–parasite combination and can also be influenced by environmental conditions. Environmental pollution might be an additional factor influencing host–parasite interactions. We here aimed to test whether the combined stress of pollutant exposure and parasite challenge results in stronger impacts on host organisms than expected from the single stressors applied alone. We used the water flea Daphnia magna and two of its endoparasites, the bacterium Pasteuria ramosa and the microsporidium Flabelliforma magnivora, as invertebrate host–parasite models. For each parasite, we tested in a full-factorial design for interactions between parasitism and pollution using the neurotoxic pesticide carbaryl as a model substance. Sublethal concentrations of the pesticide synergistically enhanced the virulence of both parasites by increasing host mortality. Furthermore, host castration induced by P. ramosa was accelerated by carbaryl exposure. These effects likely reflect decreased host resistance due to direct or indirect immunosuppressive activity of carbaryl. The present study provides experimental evidence that the in vivo development of infectious diseases can be influenced by a pesticide at environmentally realistic concentrations. This implies that host–parasite interactions and subsequently co-evolution might be influenced by environmental pollution at toxicant concentrations being sublethal to parasite-free hosts. Standard toxicity testing as employed in the current way of conducting ecological risk assessments for anthropogenic substances does not consider natural antagonists such as infectious diseases, and thereby likely underestimates the impact these substances may pose to natural populations in the environment.