Contracting a parasite is bad. But is getting colonized by multiple parasitic species worse? This is an interesting and important question. The host is a resource, which can support a limited number of parasitic individuals, and so how does competition affect parasitic species and host mortality?
This was the premise of a recent paper by Oliver Balmer and colleagues, studying trypanosome infection of mice hosts. They engineered two transgeneic strains of the protozoan parasite, Trypanosoma brucei (African sleeping sickness), to fluoresce different colors in order to assess infections. They infected mice with each strain separately and together and measured host survival and parasite density.
They found that when both strains were present, they competitively suppressed each other and that the level of suppression depended on the initial density of each strain. One of the strains was more virulent than the other, and infection by both strains reduced mortality by 15% compared to infection by the virulent strain only. This is due to the suppression of the virulent strain by the low virulent strain.
The authors argue that strain source and intraspecific genetic diversity can have an important effect on host mortality. I would also argue that understanding interspecific interactions and within-host niche differences, would also be critical.
What a cool use of molecular technology to test basic hypotheses about disease ecology.
Balmer, O., Stearns, S., Schötzau, A., & Brun, R. (2009). Intraspecific competition between co-infecting parasite strains enhances host survival in African trypanosomes Ecology, 90 (12), 3367-3378 DOI: 10.1890/08-2291.1