Variation in infection length and superinfection enhance selection efficiency in the human malaria parasite.


The capacity for adaptation is central to the evolutionary success of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Malaria epidemiology is characterized by the circulation of multiple, genetically diverse parasite clones, frequent superinfection, and highly variable infection lengths, a large number of which are chronic and asymptomatic. The impact of these characteristics on the evolution of the parasite is largely unknown, however, hampering our understanding of the impact of interventions and the emergence of drug resistance. In particular, standard population genetic frameworks do not accommodate variation in infection length or superinfection. Here, we develop a population genetic model of malaria including these variations, and show that these aspects of malaria infection dynamics enhance both the probability and speed of fixation for beneficial alleles in complex and non-intuitive ways. We find that populations containing a mixture of short- and long-lived infections promote selection efficiency. Interestingly, this increase in selection efficiency occurs even when only a small fraction of the infections are chronic, suggesting that selection can occur efficiently in areas of low transmission intensity, providing a hypothesis for the repeated emergence of drug resistance in the low transmission setting of Southeast Asia.

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