Genetic relationships between parasite virulence and transmission in the rodent malaria Plasmodium chabaudi

Margaret J. Mackinnon, Andrew F. Read

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203 Scopus citations


Many parasites evolve to become virulent rather than benign mutualists. One of the major theoretical models of parasite virulence postulates that this is because rapid within-host replication rates are necessary for successful transmission (parasite fitness) and that virulence (damage to the host) is an unavoidable consequence of this rapid replication. Two fundamental assumptions underlying this so-called evolutionary trade-off model have rarely been tested empirically: (1) that higher replication rates lead to higher levels of virulence; and (2) that higher replication rates lead to higher transmission. Both of these relationships must have a genetic basis for this evolutionary hypothesis to be relevant. These assumptions were tested in the rodent malaria parasite, Plasmodium chabaudi, by examining genetic relationships between virulence and transmission traits across a population of eight parasite clones isolated from the wild. Each clone was injected into groups of inbred mice in a controlled laboratory environment, and replication rate (measured by maximum asexual parasitemia), virulence (measured by live-weight loss and degree of anemia in the mouse), and transmission (measured by density of sexual forms, gametocytes, in the blood and proportion of mosquitoes infected after taking a blood-meal from the mouse) were assessed. It was found that clones differed widely in these traits and these clone differences were repeatable over successive blood passages. Virulence traits were strongly phenotypically and genetically (i.e., across clones) correlated to maximum parasitemia thus supporting the first assumption that rapid replication causes higher virulence. Transmission traits were also positively phenotypically and genetically correlated to parasitemia, which supports the second assumption that rapid replication leads to higher transmission. Thus, two assumptions of the parasite-centered trade-off model of the evolution of virulence were shown to be justified in malaria parasites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)689-703
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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