The trans-generational impact of population density signals on host-parasite interactions

Jessica Michel, Dieter Ebert, Matthew Hall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Background: The density of a host population is a key parameter underlying disease transmission, but it also has implications for the expression of disease through its effect on host physiology. In response to higher densities, individuals are predicted to either increase their immune investment in response to the elevated risk of parasitism, or conversely to decrease their immune capacity as a consequence of the stress of a crowded environment. However, an individual's health is shaped by many different factors, including their genetic background, current environmental conditions, and maternal effects. Indeed, population density is often sensed through the presence of info-chemicals in the environment, which may influence a host's interaction with parasites, and also those of its offspring. All of which may alter the expression of disease, and potentially uncouple the presumed link between changes in host density and disease outcomes. 

Results: In this study, we used the water flea Daphnia magna and its obligate bacterial parasite Pasteuria ramosa, to investigate how signals of high host density impact on host-parasite interactions over two consecutive generations. We found that the chemical signals from crowded treatments induced phenotypic changes in both the parental and offspring generations. In the absence of a pathogen, life-history changes were genotype-specific, but consistent across generations, even when the signal of density was removed. In contrast, the influence of density on infected animals depended on the trait and generation of exposure. When directly exposed to signals of high-density, host genotypes responded differently in how they minimised the severity of disease. Yet, in the subsequent generation, the influence of density was rarely genotype-specific and instead related to ability of the host to minimise the onset of infection. 

Conclusion: Our findings reveal that population level correlations between host density and infection capture only part of the complex relationship between crowding and the severity of disease. We suggest that besides its role in horizontal transmission, signals of density can influence parasite epidemiology by modifying mechanisms of resistance across multiple generations, and elevating variability via genotype-by-environment interactions. Our results help resolve why some studies are able to find a positive correlation between high density and resistance, while others uncover a negative correlation, or even no direct relationship at all.

Original languageEnglish
Article number254
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Evolutionary Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 25 Nov 2016


  • Condition dependence
  • Crowding-stress
  • Daphnia
  • Density-dependent prophylaxis
  • Infectious disease
  • Life-history
  • Maternal effects
  • Pasteuria ramosa

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