Phenotypic plasticity in reproductive effort: malaria parasites respond to resource availability

Philip Birget, Charlotte Repton, Aidan O'Donnell, Petra Schneider, Sarah Reece

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The trade-off between survival and reproduction is fundamental in the life history of all sexually reproducing organisms. This includes malaria parasites, which rely on asexually replicating stages for within-host survival and on sexually reproducing stages (gametocytes) for between-host transmission. The proportion of asexual stages that form gametocytes (reproductive effort) varies during infections {i.e., is phenotypically plastic {in response to changes in a number of within-host factors, including anaemia. However, how the density and age structure of red blood cell resources shape plasticity in reproductive effort and impacts upon parasite fitness, is controversial. Here, we examine how and why the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium chabaudi alters its reproductive effort in response to experimental perturbations of the density and age structure of red blood cells. We show that all four of the genotypes studied increase reproductive effort when the proportion of red blood cells that are immature is elevated during host anaemia, and that the responses of the genotypes differ. We propose that anaemia (counterintuitively) generates a resource-rich environment in which parasites can afford to allocate more energy to reproduction (i.e. transmission) and that anaemia also exposes genetic variation to selection. From an applied perspective, adaptive plasticity in parasite reproductive effort could explain the maintenance of genetic variation for virulence and why anaemia is often observed as a risk factor for transmission in human infections.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences
Early online date2 Aug 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Aug 2017


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