The evolution of host protection by vertically transmitted parasites

Edward O. Jones, Andrew White, Michael Boots


Hosts are often infected by a variety of different parasites, leading to competition for hosts and coevolution between parasite species. There is increasing evidence that some vertically transmitted parasitic symbionts may protect their hosts from further infection and that this protection may be an important reason for their persistence in nature. Here, we examine theoretically when protection is likely to evolve and its selective effects on other parasites. Our key result is that protection is most likely to evolve in response to horizontally transmitted parasites that cause a significant reduction in host fecundity. The preponderance of sterilizing horizontally transmitted parasites found in arthropods may therefore explain the evolution of protection seen by their symbionts. We also find that protection is more likely to evolve in response to highly transmissible parasites that cause intermediate, rather than high, virulence (increased death rate when infected). Furthermore, intermediate levels of protection select for faster, more virulent horizontally transmitted parasites, suggesting that protective symbionts may lead to the evolution of more virulent parasites in nature. When we allow for coevolution between the symbiont and the parasite, more protection is likely to evolve in the vertically transmitted symbionts of longer lived hosts. Therefore, if protection is found to be common in nature, it has the potential to be a major selective force on host–parasite interactions.

  • Received July 1, 2010.
  • Accepted August 31, 2010.
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