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Weakness can be an advantage in surviving deadly parasites, a new study shows
Date:3/31/2012

When battling an epidemic of a deadly parasite, less resistance can sometimes be better than more, a new study suggests.

A freshwater zooplankton species known as Daphnia dentifera endures periodic epidemics of a virulent yeast parasite that can infect more than 60 percent of the Daphnia population. During these epidemics, the Daphnia population evolves quickly, balancing infection resistance and reproduction.

A new study led by Georgia Institute of Technology researchers reveals that the number of vertebrate predators in the water and the amount of food available for Daphnia to eat influence the size of the epidemics and how these "water fleas" evolve during epidemics to survive.

The study shows that lakes with high nutrient concentrations and lower predation levels exhibit large epidemics and Daphnia that become more resistant to infection by the yeast Metschnikowia bicuspidata. However, in lakes with fewer resources and high predation, epidemics remain small and Daphnia evolve increased susceptibility to the parasite.

"It's counterintuitive to think that hosts would ever evolve greater susceptibility to virulent parasites during an epidemic, but we found that ecological factors determine whether it is better for them to evolve enhanced resistance or susceptibility to infection," said the study's lead author Meghan Duffy, an assistant professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech. "There is a trade-off between resistance and reproduction because any resources an animal devotes to defense are not available for reproduction. When ecological factors favor small epidemics, it is better for hosts to invest in reproduction rather than defense."

This study was published in the March 30, 2012 issue of the journal Science. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

In addition to Duffy, also contributin
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Contact: Abby Robinson
abby@innovate.gatech.edu
404-385-3364
Georgia Institute of Technology Research News
Source:Eurekalert  

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