Evolutionary ecology of parasites: life-history traits, phenotypic plasticity, and reproductive strategies
Birget, Philip Laurent Guillaume
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Adaptive phenotypic plasticity, the ability of a genotype to give rise to different phenotypes in different environments, evolves to allow organisms to fine-tune their life-history traits according to the varying conditions they encounter during their lives. Reproductive investment - the manner in which organisms divide their resources between survival and reproduction - is well studied in evolutionary ecology because it is a key determinant of fitness. However, whilst plasticity in reproductive effort is well understood for free-living multicellular taxa (such as insects, birds, and mammals), the application of evolutionary theory for plasticity and life history strategies to unicellular parasites and pathogens is lacking. In this thesis, I use empirical and theoretical approaches to uncover how differential resource allocation to non-replicating, sexual stages (gametocytes) versus asexually replicating stages can be harnessed by the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium chabaudi to maximise its fitness across the often very variable conditions it encounters during infections.Differential allocation between those stages is equivalent to the fundamental life-history trade-off between survival and reproduction because gametocytes are responsible for between-host transmission (i.e. reproduction of the infection) whereas asexual parasites mediate host exploitation and within-host survival. A suite of within-host models reveal that malaria parasites could gain considerable fitness benefits in the face of low levels of drug treatment if they reduce their investment into gametocyte production ("reproductive restraint"), thereby assuring the continuity of the infection and capitalising on opportunities for future transmission. In contrast, high levels of drug treatment typically select parasites to commit all of their resources to gametocyte production ("terminal investment"), to escape a host that does not offer much opportunity for future transmission. My experiments reveal that P. chabaudi increases both its reproductive investment and its asexual replication rate in anaemic hosts (i.e. host that have a low density of red blood cells), suggesting that parasites profit from host anaemia and can afford high investment in gametocytes ("affluent investment"). I also uncover plasticity in a number of traits that underpin asexual replication rate, including invasion preference for different ages of red blood cells, but it is plasticity in the number of progeny (merozoites) per infected cell that is the main contributor to asexual replication rate. My experiments also reveal genetic variance in plasticity of the life-history traits investigated, which has profound implications for their evolution. Furthermore, plastic modification of these traits is associated with minimal costs or constraints, so that parasites can rapidly match life-history traits appropriately to the within-host environment. Severe anaemia is one of the deadliest symptoms of malaria, so observing that virulence and infectiousness increases in anaemic hosts has also fundamental clinical implications. Finally, the empirical and theoretical observations of affluent investment, reproductive restraint and terminal investment match theoretical predictions of how organisms should behave in varying environments, confirming P. chabaudi as a useful model system to test life-history theory.