Virulence evolution in a naturally occurring parasite of monarch butterflies

Mathematical Biology and Ecology Seminar
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 - 11:00
1 hour (actually 50 minutes)
Skiles 269
Emory University

Host: Meghan Duffy (School of Biology, Georgia Tech)

Why do parasites cause disease? Theory has shown that natural selection could select for virulent parasites if virulence is correlated with between-host parasite transmission. Because ecological conditions may affect virulence and transmission, theory further predicts that adaptive levels of virulence depend on the specific environment in which hosts and parasites interact. To test these predictions in a natural system, we study monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and their protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Our studies have shown that more virulent parasites obtain greater between-host transmission, and that parasites with intermediate levels of virulence obtain highest fitness. The average virulence of wild parasite isolates falls closely to this optimum level, providing additional support that virulence can evolve as a consequence of natural selection operating on parasite transmission. Our studies have also shown that parasites from geographically separated populations differ in their virulence, suggesting that population-specific ecological factors shape adaptive levels of virulence. One important ecological factor is the monarch larval host plants in the milkweed family. Monarch populations differ in the milkweed species they harbor, and experiments have shown that milkweeds can alter parasite virulence. Our running hypothesis is that plant availability shapes adaptive levels of parasite virulence in natural monarch populations. Testing this hypothesis will improve our understanding of why some parasites are more harmful than others, and will help with predicting the consequences of human actions on the evolution of disease.