A fine-scale analysis reveals microgeographic hotspots maximizing infection rate between a parasite and its fish host (2021) Mathieu-Bégné et al., Functional Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13967
Image credit: Viridiflavus via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Interactions between hosts and parasites can be broken down into two broad stages: the encounter filter and the compatibility filter. The encounter filter determines whether a parasite actually comes in contact with a host, through either a spatial or temporal overlap. After the encounter filter comes the compatibility filter, the stage at which a parasite either successfully infects a host and takes the resources needed, or is successfully repelled by the host. Though the encounter filter must come before the compatibility filter, most studies tend to focus on the compatibility filter. Yet for a parasite to successfully encounter a host, many obstacles must first be overcome.
Parasites tend to be very small, and hosts tend to be rare. Furthermore, many hosts move around the environment and/or are only available to a parasite at specific times of the year. Finally, in many cases the environment that a single host can occupy is huge. With all of these difficulties facing parasites, it is not surprising that they have evolved many different strategies to effectively find hosts.
However, some species don’t appear to display these strategies. For them to succeed, it is possible that they distribute themselves in a non-random (see Did You Know?) fashion in the environment, clumping together to form “hot-spots” of infection. Other studies have investigated this “hot-spot” phenomenon before, but tended to focus on larger spatial scales, anywhere from hundreds to thousands of meters. Today’s authors wanted to understand if investigations at much smaller spatial scales (i.e., ~10 meters or less) could provide further insight into the spatial aggregation of parasites.
Population size impacts host-pathogen coevolution (2021) Papkou et al. 2021, Proc B, https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.2269
Image credit: Kbradnam, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
Host-pathogen interactions are maybe best characterized as a battle – a pathogen (a parasite that causes disease) doing what it can to maximize how much it can get from a given host organism, and a host doing what it can to defend itself from this endless attack. As a result, hosts and pathogens are locked in an endless evolutionary battle, whereby hosts evolve to better defend themselves and pathogens evolve to better attack the host. A key factor in this battle is population size, as this affects the evolutionary potential of a given population of organisms to respond to selection.
The larger a population of hosts, the more novel genetic variants there are, which are simply organisms with different genetic make-ups, which can be the result of mutations popping up or through combinations with other genetic variants within the population. The more variation there is, the more diverse the population is, and the more chance it has of carrying the genes that could help it respond to a new threat, like a pathogen.
This means that a larger host population is more likely to have a genetic variant that is able to defend itself from these pathogens. That variant will then be selected for and the host population will become more resistant to that pathogen over time. While a lot of theory has been dedicated to understanding these coevolutionary battles, actual experimental evidence is lacking. Today’s authors used a model system to conduct evolutionary experiments to test the effect of host population size on host-pathogen coevolution.
Host controls of within-host dynamics: insight from an invertebrate system (2021) Stewart Merrill et al., The American Naturalist. https://doi.org/10.1086/715355
Image Credit: Per Harald Olsen, NTNU, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped
When it comes to understanding how parasites and pathogens spread, immune defenses may be an especially important factor. The immune system is the gatekeeper for parasites and pathogens (I’ll just use the term “pathogen” from here on out). Whether you are exposed to influenza, a parasitic worm, or a tick-borne bacterium, your immune response will determine the outcome of infection — either you will become infected (which benefits the pathogen’s reproduction) or you will not (which is a barrier to the pathogen’s reproduction). So now, picture a whole population of individuals. A room full of individuals with poor immune responses should result in more infections (and more transmission) than a room full of individuals with strong and robust immune defenses. By shaping the fate of pathogens, host immune defenses can shape transmission.
Do latitudinal and bioclimatic gradients drive parasitism in Odonata? (2021) da Silva et al., International Journal for Parasitology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpara.2020.11.008
Image Credit: Adam Hasik, image cropped
If there is one thing that people know about me and my research it’s that I love parasites. They’re everywhere, and more than half of all animals are parasites. They also make ecosystems more stable and link organisms within food webs to one another. For example, some parasites connect prey animals and their predators by making it easier for the predator to find and/or eat the prey. Though they can be found all over the world, there are a variety of environmental factors that make it more likely for a parasite to be found in a given environment. Today’s study focuses on one particular hypothesis related to the effects of the environment, the latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG, see Did You Know).
Natural enemies have inconsistent impacts on the coexistence of competing species (2021) Terry et al., Journal of Animal Ecology. http://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.135434
Image Credit: Alandmanson, CC BY 4.0
In nature, organisms are often competing with other organisms for food, mates, or even just for a place to call home. This competition comes in two forms: interspecific competition (meaning competition between two different species) and intraspecific competion (meaning competition within the same species). These two forms of competition play into the phenomenon known as mutual invasibility (see Did You Know), which is a necessary component of coexistence. If two organisms coexist, one species will not outcompete the other and drive it extinct, and thus the two species will coexist over time.
Because competition plays such a strong role in species coexistence, any factor that affects competition between two species has the potential to also affect coexistence. Today’s authors wanted to ask how an antagonistic species interaction (specifically, interactions with a parasitoid) affected coexistence in rainforest flies.
Temporally consistent species differences in parasite infection but no evidence for rapid parasite-mediated speciation in Lake Victoria cichlid fish (2020) Gobbin et al., Journal of Evolutionary Biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/jeb.13615
Image Credit: Kevin Bauman, CC BY 1.0
Ecological speciation (see Did You Know?) can be driven by both abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) factors. The biotic factors that tend to be studied in regards to ecological speciation are antagonistic in nature, such as competition for resources or interactions with predators. However, parasitism is another antagonistic species interaction that is ubiquitous in nature, and therefore might be expected to contribute to ecological speciation via its effects on host-parasite coevolutionary dynamics.
Though a number of studies have investigated the effects of parasites on ecological speciation, little is known about the role of parasites in adaptive radiations, which are bursts of speciation from a single ancestor to many descendent species that then adapt to fill new ecological niches. In other words, an ancestor will be adapted to a specific environment/food types, but its descendants adapt to live in different environments/eat different food. One of the best examples of an adaptive radiation are the Africa lake cichlids, which are the focus of today’s study. The authors wanted to understand if parasites may have contributed to/caused the adaptive radiation seen in African lake cichlids.
Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts (2020) Mollentze & Streicker, PNAS. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1919176117
Image Credit: Tom Spinker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Diseases that jump from other animals to humans, or zoonotic diseases (see Did You Know?) have become something that all of us are now very familiar with. COVID-19 is one such disease, and the impact it has had on the world as a whole is all the evidence that anyone could ever need for understanding why it is important to know where these diseases come from. Classically, specific groups of animals have been thought to act as reservoirs for the viruses that cause these diseases. Take rabies, for example. This is the disease that results in rabid animals, but you may not know that bats act as a reservoir for rabies, meaning that the rabies virus survives within bat populations and can be spread by them.
This is known as the “special reservoir hypothesis”, and it posits that there are certain traits associated with these reservoir species and/or their ecology that make them more likely to act as reservoirs for these viruses. In contrast, it could be that all animal species are equally likely to act as a reservoir for zoonotic viruses, and the risk of virus transmission is instead due to how many host species are within a given group of animal hosts. All this means is that you expect to find more diverse groups of animals hosting a more diverse group of viruses. This is known as the “reservoir richness hypothesis”.
In order to better manage zoonotic disease emergence and even predict where it is likely to occur in the future, it is important to understand if there are indeed special reservoirs among animal hosts, or if disease emergence is instead a consequence of host species richness. Today’s authors utilized data on zoonotic viruses and host species to understand this relationship.
High parasite diversity accelerates host adaptation and diversification (2018) Betts et al., Science. https://doi:10.1126/science.aam9974
Image Credit: Dr. Graham Beards, CC BY-SA 3.0
Host-parasite relationships are often thought of or depicted in a pairwise structure. That is, one host is attacked by one parasite, without an acknowledgement or consideration of how complex the relationship can be. For example, hosts are often attacked by more than one type of parasite, and the parasites themselves have to compete with one another for resources from the host. Because parasites are costly for a host, the hosts benefit from evolving resistance to the parasites. It follows that the more parasites a host is attacked by, the higher the benefit of evolving resistance, so we’d expect to see more resistance in hosts that are attacked more often. This should then result in differential evolutionary rates among hosts, which would then result in greater evolutionary divergence (see Did You Know?)
To test this idea, the authors of today’s study used a bacterium (Pseudomonas aeruginosa) and five lytic viral parasites (hereafter bacteriophages). These bacteriophages reproduce within host cells until they eventually cause the host to burst, killing the host (think of the chestburster in Alien, but a LOT of them). Because their reproduction results in the death of the host, lytic parasites impose a very strong selection pressure on hosts, making this a perfect host-parasite system to test the above prediction.
The cost of travel: how dispersal ability limits local adaptation in host–parasite interactions (2020) Johnson et al., Journal of Evolutionary Biology. https://doi:10.1111/jeb.13754
Image Credit: Francis Eartherington, CC BY-NC 2.0, Image Cropped
There are countless parasites in nature, and many of them tend to have relatively short life-cycles. For example, ticks live for about two years, while may of their hosts (us included) live for much longer. Because there is such a disparity in lifespan, parasites are predicted to have a greater evolutionary potential than their hosts. In other words, parasites should evolve faster than their hosts, which theoretically means that parasites should be more fit on local hosts than they would be on non-local hosts, as they would have had more time to adapt (i.e., local adaption, see Did You Know?).
Despite these predictions, the evidence from experimental studies of parasite local adaptation is mixed at best. Some studies show the adaptation to local hosts we’d expect, but some studies don’t. One reason for the lack of consistent evidence is that parasite dispersal between habitats can limit the ability of parasites to adapt. To help explain that I’ll use a comparison to cooking. If you are cooking a dish and you want to make it spicier you add in more spice. But imagine that when you add in that spice, you are also adding a lot of cream. The dish could be spicy, because you are adding spice, but the cream is diluting the spice and masking any potential heat. That is what parasite dispersal does to local adaptation: parasites within a given habitat (the dish) may have the ability to adapt to their hosts (become spicier), but because parasites from other habitats (the cream) are coming into their habitat and diluting those adaptations it masks any overall adaptation to the host (never gets spicy). Today’s authors therefore wanted to test how parasite dispersal affected local adaptation to hosts.