Virulence of mixed-clone and single-clone infections of the rodent malaria Plasmodium chabaudi

Louise H. Taylor, Margaret J. Mackinnon, Andrew F. Read

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127 Scopus citations


Most evolutionary models treat virulence as an unavoidable consequence of microparasite replication and have predicted that in mixed-genotype infections, natural selection should favor higher levels of virulence than is optimal in genetically uniform infections. Increased virulence may evolve as a genetically fixed strategy, appropriate for the frequency of mixed infections in the population, or may occur as a conditional response to mixed infection, that is, a facultative strategy. Here we test whether facultative alterations in replication rates in the presence of competing genotypes occur and generate greater virulence. An important alternative, not currently incorporated in models of the evolution of virulence, is that host responses mounted against genetically diverse parasites may be more costly or less effective than those against genetically uniform parasites. If so, mixed clone infections will be more virulent for a given parasite replication rate. Two groups of mice were infected with one of two clones of Plasmodium chabaudi parasites, and three groups of mice were infected with 1:9, 5:5, or 9:1 mixtures of the same two clones. Virulence was assessed by monitoring mouse body weight and red blood cell density. Transmission stage densities were significantly higher in mixed- than in single-clone infections. Within treatment groups, transmission stage production increased with the virulence of the infection, a phenotypic correlation consistent with the genetic correlation assumed by much of the theoretical work on the evolution of virulence. Consistent with theoretical predictions of facultative alterations in virulence, we found that mice infected with both parasite clones lost more weight and had on average lower blood counts than those infected with single-clone infections. However, there was no consistent evidence of the mechanism invoked by evolutionary models that predict this effect. Replication rates and parasite densities were not always higher in mixed-clone infections, and for a given replication rate or parasite density, mixed-clone infections were still more virulent. Instead, prolonged anemia and increased transmission may have occured because genetically diverse infections are less rapidly cleared by hosts. Differences in maximum weight loss occured even when there were comparable parasite densities in mixed- and single-clone infections. We suggest that mounting an immune response against more that one parasite genotype is more costly for hosts, which therefore suffer higher virulence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)583-591
Number of pages9
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


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