Rapid Evolution of Parasite Resistance via Improved Recognition and Accelerated Immune Activation and Deactivation


Closely related populations often differ in resistance to a given parasite, as measured by infection success or failure. Yet, the immunological mechanisms of these evolved differences are rarely specified. Does resistance evolve via changes to the host’s ability to recognize that an infection exists, actuate an effective immune response, or attenuate that response? We tested whether each of these phases of the host response contributed to threespine sticklebacks’ recently evolved resistance to their tapeworm Schistocephalus solidus. While marine stickleback and some susceptible lake fish permit fast-growing tapeworms, other lake populations are resistant and suppress tapeworm growth via a fibrosis response. We subjected lab-raised fish from three populations (susceptible marine ‘ancestors’, a susceptible lake, a resistant lake), to a novel immune challenge (injection of: 1) a saline control, 2) alum, a generalized pro-inflammatory adjuvant that causes fibrosis, 3) a tapeworm protein extract, and 4) a combination of alum and tapeworm protein). All three populations were capable of a robust fibrosis response to the alum treatments (but not the saline control). Yet, only the resistant population exhibited a fibrosis response to the tapeworm protein alone. Thus, these populations differed in their ability to recognize the tapeworm but shared an intact fibrosis pathway. However, the resistant population also initiated fibrosis faster, and was able to attenuate fibrosis, unlike the susceptible populations slow but longer-lasting response to alum. As fibrosis has presumed pathological side-effects, this difference may reflect adaptions to mitigate costs of immunity in the resistant population. Broadly, our results confirm that parasite detection, activation speed, and immune attenuation simultaneously contribute to adaptations to parasite infection in natural populations.

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