The influence of host demography on the evolution of virulence of a microsporidian gut parasite

Dieter Ebert, Katrina L. Mangin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Scopus citations


It is predicted that host exploitation should evolve to maximize parasite fitness and that virulence (= parasite-induced host mortality) evolves along with the rate of host exploitation. If the life expectancy of a parasite is short, it is expected to evolve a higher rate of host exploitation and therefore higher virulence because the penalty to the parasite for killing the host is reduced. We tested this hypothesis by keeping for 14 months the horizontally transmitted microsporidian parasite Glugoides intestinalis in monoclonal host cultures (Daphnia magna) under conditions of high and low host background mortality. High host mortality, and thus parasite mortality, was achieved by replacing weekly 70-80% of all hosts in a culture with uninfected hosts from stock cultures (Replacement lines). In the low-mortality treatment no replacement took place. Contrary to our expectation, parasites from the Replacement lines evolved a lower within-host growth rate and virulence than parasites from the Nonreplacement lines. Across lines we found a strong positive correlation between within-host growth rate and virulence. We did further experiments to answer the question why our data did not support the predictions. Sporophorous vesicles (SVs, spore clusters) were smaller in doubly infected than in singly infected host-gut cells, indicating that competition within cells bears costs for the parasite. Due to our experimental protocol, the average life span of infections had been much higher in the Nonreplacement lines. Since the number of parasites inside a host increases with the time since infection, long-lasting infections led to high frequencies of multiply infected host-gut cells. Therefore, we speculated that within-cell competition was more severe in the Nonreplacement lines and may have led to selection for accelerated within-host growth. SVs in the Nonreplacement lines were indeed significantly larger. Our results point out that single-factor explanations for the evolution of virulence can lead to wrong predictions and that multiple infections are an important factor in virulence evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1828-1837
Number of pages10
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1997
Externally publishedYes


  • Daphnia
  • Microsporidia
  • Multiple infections
  • Parasite
  • Selection
  • Spore size
  • Trade-off
  • Transmission
  • Virulence
  • Within-host competition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'The influence of host demography on the evolution of virulence of a microsporidian gut parasite'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this