Monday, November 23, 2009

Sex and death: a model of density-dependent virulence

Providing evidence that supports the role of parasites driving the maintenance of sex (i.e. the Red Queen hypothesis) has been a challenge ever since it was proposed. Both theoreticians and empiricists have tackled this hypothesis with vigor to mixed results. This week we read Lively (2009) which focuses on a singular effect to help build a theoretical argument for the Red Queen, density-dependent virulence. Here virulence is defined as the effect of the parasite on the host population growth rate. The density-dependent part comes into play in that the virulence increases with host population size.

The main argument of the paper is that as an asexual population invades a sexual population, the level of virulence changes and this can in turn change the outcome of the overall winner. Parasites with large density-dependent effects can change the balance and allow the maintenance of sexual populations. Presented in several graphs, virulence is a population measure of the effect of the parasites on the hosts. I'm still curious about the magnitude of selection on the individual genotypes in the model. When interpreting the results of this model, I was only able to see what happens when a group of asexual organisms invades a sexual one.

Lively provides an excellent ion description and understanding of the cost of sex. Of course the cost of sex has been detailed before, but the mathematical explanation helps with a basic intuition. The model described in the paper identifies two populations of hosts: asexual and sexually reproducing individuals. What he identifies is that in a sexual population, males provide little and females must produce at least two offspring to replace themselves. These males are using up resources. They are also decreasing the overall density of hosts that could be achieved in a complete female (or asexual) population.

One of the topics that came up during out discussion was how sex ratio may change or evolve during the evolution of sex. The simulation results presented in Lively (2009) assumes a sex ratio of 50/50 which makes sense in an evolutionary context. This has the effect of setting the advantage of the asexual population to be two fold over the sexual population. What happens when instead of two separate populations that do not interbreed, we have females choosing to produce offspring via sex or parthenogenesis? Will rare males in such a population change the early dynamics enough to produce different results?


Lively, C. M. 2009. The maintenance of sex: host-parasite coevolution with density-dependent virulence. J Evolution Biol 22:2086-2093.

LIVELY, C. (2009). The maintenance of sex: host-parasite coevolution with density-dependent virulence Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 22 (10), 2086-2093 DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2009.01824.x

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is the Red Queen showing her face? Evidence of negative frequency dependent selection by parasites

Recently Wolinska and Spaak (2009) provide a survey of Daphnia infections by genotype across a number of lakes in Italy and Switzerland. They present their results as empirical evidence of Red Queen dynamics in which coevolution with virulent parasites generates continued evolution. Although Van Valen (1973) originally presented a macroevolutionary argument where by reciprocal selection of hosts and their parasites generates conditions for continuous change, Bell (1982) narrowed the focus as a mechanistic explanation for the evolution or maintenance of sexual reproduction through cyclical changes in genotype frequencies. Wolinska and Spaak (2009) are not addressing the evolution of sex, but looking for evidence that parasites in Daphnia populations are generating negative frequency dependent selection such that a rare genotype has an advantage. Evidence consistent with the Red Queen has been found in other systems using spatially distributed samples (e.g. Dybdahl and Lively 1995) to look non-random infection rates as well as more directly looking at changes in frequencies of common genotypes (e.g. Dybdahl and Lively 1998).

Wolinska and Spaak (2009) propose three hypotheses to test with their data. The first is that common genotypes should be either over or under infected compared to a random sample. This prediction is based on stereotyped cyclical dynamics of genotypes of hosts and parasites (image two out of sync sine waves). At some points, the common clones will be targeted by the parasites and become overly infected. As a genotype becomes common, parasites haven't started attacking this genotype yet (i.e. time lagged), so it is under infected. In their survey, the found that indeed, some of the populations showed over infection (n = 1) and other showed under infection (n = 11), although the majority of cases did show no significant difference from random infection probabilities which is predicted as being a rare event. Their second hypothesis was that common genotypes should over the course of time decline if they are being tracked by parasites. The previous sample included only different lakes; where as the data needed to test this hypothesis are temporal samples from the same location. Their additional data is consistent with common genotypes declining over time (9 out of 10 cases). However, it is unclear to me how the general trend in this data of common genotypes decreasing over time, leads to the evidence supporting the first hypothesis. Shouldn't they find many more over infected common clones? A third hypothesis that they tested regarded host-parasite interactions maintaining diversity and an evenness of genotype frequencies which their data supported.

When discussing this paper, we were interested in what happens to predictions based on Red Queen dynamics when more than one parasite is involved. Previous empirical papers and theory seems to be generally focused on a host and a common parasite, but we know hosts are attacked by all kinds of parasites and pathogens. The system described by Wolinska and Spaak (2009) involves a host hybrid complex as well as four different parasites and questions about host specialization and hybrid maintenance were addressed in a previous paper (Wolinska et al. 2007). Where is the companion theoretical work to provide testable hypotheses?


Bell, G. 1982. The Masterpiece of Nature: The Evolution and Genetics of Sexuality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Dybdahl, M. F., and C. M. Lively. 1995. Host-Parasite Interactions: Infection of Common Clones in Natural Populations of a Freshwater Snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 260:99-103.

Dybdahl, M. F., and C. M. Lively. 1998. Host-parasite coevolution: Evidence for rare advantage and time-lagged selection in a natural population. Evolution 52:1057-1066.

Van Valen, L. 1973. A new evolutionary law. Evolutionary Theory 1:1-30.

Wolinska, J., B. Keller, M. Manca, and P. Spaak. 2007. Parasite survey of a Daphnia hybrid complex: host-specificity and environment determine infection. Journal of Animal Ecology 76:191-200.

Wolinska, J., and P. Spaak. 2009. The cost of being common: evidence from natural Daphnia populations. Evolution 63:1893-1901.

Wolinska, J., & Spaak, P. (2009). The cost of being common: evidence from natural Daphnia populations Evolution, 63 (7), 1893-1901 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00663.x