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Recent evolution of extreme cestode growth suppression by a vertebrate host

Abstract

Parasites can be a major cause of natural selection on hosts, which consequently evolve a variety of strategies to avoid, eliminate, or tolerate infection. When ecologically similar host populations present disparate infection loads, this natural variation can reveal immunological strategies underlying adaptation to infection and population divergence. For instance, the tapeworm Schistocephalus solidus persistently infects 0–80% of threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) in lakes on Vancouver Island. To test whether these heterogeneous infection rates result from evolved differences in immunity, we experimentally exposed laboratory-reared fish from ecologically similar high-infection and no-infection populations to controlled doses of Schistocephalus. We observed heritable between-population differences in several immune traits: Fish from the naturally uninfected population initiated a stronger granulocyte response to Schistocephalus infection, and their granulocytes constitutively generate threefold more reactive oxygen species in cell culture. Despite these immunological differences, Schistocephalus was equally successful at establishing initial infections in both host populations. However, the no-infection fish dramatically suppressed tapeworm growth relative to high-infection fish, and parasite size was intermediate in F1 hybrid hosts. Our results show that stickleback recently evolved heritable variation in their capacity to suppress helminth growth by two orders of magnitude. Data from many natural populations indicate that growth suppression is widespread but not universal and, when present, is associated with reduced infection prevalence. Host suppression of helminth somatic growth may be an important immune strategy that aids in parasite clearance or in mitigating the fitness costs of persistent infection.

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