Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 14, Issue 8, pp 665–692 | Cite as

Evolutionary implications of host–pathogen specificity: the fitness consequences of host life history traits

  • J.W. Kirchner
  • B.A. Roy


Pathogens and parasites can be strong agents of selection, and often exhibit some degree of genetic specificity for individual host strains. Here we show that this host–pathogen specificity can affect the evolution of host life history traits. All else equal, evolution should select for genes that increase individuals' reproduction rates or lifespans (and thus total reproduction per individual). Using a simple host–pathogen model, we show that when the genetic specificity of pathogen infection is low, host strains with higher reproduction rates or longer lifespans drive slower-reproducing or shorter-lived host strains to extinction, as one would expect. However, when pathogens exhibit specificity for host strains with different life history traits, the evolutionary advantages of these traits can be greatly diminished by pathogen-mediated selection. Given sufficient host–pathogen specificity, pathogen-mediated selection can maintain polymorphism in host traits that are correlated with pathogen resistance traits, despite large intrinsic fitness differences among host strains. These results have two important implications. First, selection on host life history traits will be weaker than expected, whenever host fitness is significantly affected by genotype-specific pathogen attack. Second, where polymorphism in host traits is maintained by pathogen-mediated selection, preserving the genetic diversity of host species may require preserving their pathogens as well.

disease evolution frequency-dependent selection genetic diversity life history lifespan polymorphism reproduction rate resistance specificity virulence 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • J.W. Kirchner
    • 1
  • B.A. Roy
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Earth and Planetary ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.Geobotanical InstituteSwiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)ZürichSwitzerland

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