Plasticity and genetic variation in traits underpinning asexual replication of the rodent malaria parasite, Plasmodium chabaudi

Philip L G Birget, Kimberley F Prior, Nicholas J Savill, Lewis Steer, Sarah E Reece

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

BACKGROUND: The ability of malaria (Plasmodium) parasites to adjust investment into sexual transmission stages versus asexually replicating stages is well known, but plasticity in other traits underpinning the replication rate of asexual stages in the blood has received less attention. Such traits include burst size (the number of merozoites produced per schizont), the duration of the asexual cycle, and invasion preference for different ages of red blood cell (RBC).

METHODS: Here, plasticity [environment (E) effects] and genetic variation [genotype (G) effects] in traits relating to asexual replication rate are examined for 4 genotypes of the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium chabaudi. An experiment tested whether asexual dynamics differ between parasites infecting control versus anaemic hosts, and whether variation in replication rate can be explained by differences in burst size, asexual cycle, and invasion rates.

RESULTS: The within-host environment affected each trait to different extents but generally had similar impacts across genotypes. The dynamics of asexual densities exhibited a genotype by environment effect (G×E), in which one of the genotypes increased replication rate more than the others in anaemic hosts. Burst size and cycle duration varied between the genotypes (G), while burst size increased and cycle duration became longer in anaemic hosts (E). Variation in invasion rates of differently aged RBCs was not explained by environmental or genetic effects. Plasticity in burst size and genotype are the only traits making significant contributions to the increase in asexual densities observed in anaemic hosts, together explaining 46.4% of the variation in replication rate.

CONCLUSIONS: That host anaemia induces several species of malaria parasites to alter conversion rate is well documented. Here, previously unknown plasticity in other traits underpinning asexual replication is revealed. These findings contribute to mounting evidence that malaria parasites deploy a suite of sophisticated strategies to maximize fitness by coping with, or exploiting the opportunities provided by, the variable within-host conditions experienced during infections. That genetic variation and genotype by environment interactions also shape these traits highlights their evolutionary potential. Asexual replication rate is a major determinant of virulence and so, understanding the evolution of virulence requires knowledge of the ecological (within-host environment) and genetic drivers of variation among parasites.

Original languageEnglish
Article number222
Pages (from-to)222
JournalMalaria Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • red blood cell preference
  • cycle duration
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • in host survival
  • anaemia
  • GxE
  • genotype by environment
  • life history trait
  • virulence


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