The maintenance of sex in parasites

Alison P. Galvani, Ronald M. Coleman, Neil M. Ferguson

Abstract

The maintenance of sex is an unresolved paradox in evolutionary biology, given the inherent twofold fitness advantage for asexuals. Parasitic helminths offer a unique opportunity to address this enigma. Parasites that can create novel antigenic strains are able to escape pre-existing host immunity. Viruses produce diversity through mutation with rapid clonal proliferation. The long generation times of helminth parasites prevent them from adopting this strategy. Instead, we argue that sexual reproduction enables parasitic helminths to rapidly generate strain diversity. We use both a stochastic, individual–based model and a simple analytical model to assess the selective value of sexual versus asexual reproduction in helminth parasites. We demonstrate that sexual reproduction can more easily produce and maintain strain diversity than asexual reproduction for long–lived parasites. We also show that sexual parasite populations are resistant to invasion by rare asexual mutants. These results are robust to high levels of cross–immunity between strains. We suggest that the enhancement of strain diversity, despite stochastic extinction of strains, may be critical to the evolutionary success of sex in long–lived parasites.