Monday, October 7, 2013

Why greater diversity – even of parasites – might decrease infections

(Host competence - the tendency of host species to become infected and maintain infection.)

There is often a disconnect between the reality that communities and ecosystems are diverse assemblages with numerous, often complicated and variable interactions, and ecological research, which (perhaps necessarily) focuses on interactions between at most two or three species at a time. Disease ecology similarly has often considered interactions between particular host/parasite species pairs. Some researchers have considered the diversity of host species as an important factor in explaining disease transmission and mortality, but the reality is that parasites also interact, and most hosts harbour multiple parasites. Studying disease dynamics in the context of multi-parasite, multi-host interactions is increasingly recognized as key to understanding disease transmission and severity in communities.

With this in mind, a new paper from Pieter Johnson and colleagues attempts to combine research into the effects of both parasite and host diversity on disease. Two possible hypotheses predict the effect of diversity on disease transmission: the ‘dilution effect’ suggests that the presence of multiple hosts should decrease transmission risk, if the result of additional species is a decline in community competence. It is also hypothesized, somewhat contradictorily, that increased host diversity should support a greater variety of parasites, and parasite life cycles. Both these hypotheses take a host-centric view: understanding how changes in host diversity alter disease risk also requires that we understand how changes in parasite diversity affect disease transmission.
Mutations caused by Ribeiroia infection.
The authors looked at the contribution of host and parasite diversity to parasite transmission success using field data and laboratory experiments. First, they looked at existing data on infections of the pathogenic trematode Ribeiroia ondatrae, in amphibian species. Observations showed a positive correlation between larval trematode diversity (parasites) and the richness of free-living species (hosts). Of course the two diversities might be correlated for many unrelated reasons, like site isolation, evolutionary history, or habitat productivity. But a closer analysis showed what appeared to be an interaction between Ribeiroia infection in Pseudacris regilla (Pacific tree frog, the most common amphibian in the survey) and the total number of amphibian species at a site (figure below). Infection by Ribeiroia was highest when there was low amphibian richness and low parasite richness. It dropped significantly lower when amphibian richness was high and/or parasite richness was high.
From Johnson et al. 2013 PNAS. Results of field observations.
In addition to these observations, the authors manipulated both parasite and host species richness, first in small laboratory microcosms and then in larger and more realistic outdoor mesocosms. Results from the laboratory microcosms showed that increases in both amphibian richness (one vs. three species) and parasite richness (one vs. five species) reduced the average number of Ribeiroia in Pseudacris regilla as well as the total infection rate in the amphibian community. The mesocosms had similar results, with both host and parasite diversity negatively influencing Ribeiroia infection. In support of the generality of these results, effect sizes were comparable between the two experiments. These effects were also quite large: for example, in the mesocosm high-host, high-parasite richness treatment there were 52.4% fewer Ribeiroia per P. regilla and 38.2% fewer Ribeiroia overall compared to the low-host, low-parasite richness. Clearly multi-species interactions are crucial for understanding infection by Ribeiroia.
From Johnson et al. 2013 PNAS. Results of the microcosm and mesocosm experiments,
 showing the effects of host and parasite diversity on transmission.

The results make it clear that if you want to understand disease transmission in communities, both host and parasite diversity should be considered. To some extent, both of the initial hypotheses were supported – host and parasite diversity were correlated in the wild, but (in agreement with the dilution effect) infection rates declined as host diversity increased. One factor missing from these hypotheses is the dynamics of the parasite community: in the paper, the authors found models of transmission that included both host and parasite richness were superior. Further, past and future studies that consider only host richness may be inadvertently accounting for the effects of parasite richness on transmission as well, if those two host and parasite diversities are correlated.

There are a number of possibilities for why both host and parasite communities alter parasite transmission success. If host diversity changes the susceptibility of the community to infection (i.e. as diversity increases, the number of low competence/susceptible species increases) then low-competence hosts could act as sinks for parasite infections. Increases in parasite diversity could result in inter-parasite competition and interactions via host immunity.

One future step will be to move beyond simple measurements of species richness to understanding how species identity or characteristics are tied to the putative mechanisms. For example, how do communities of host species vary from low to high diversity sites? Do sites in fact tend to assemble with increasing numbers of low competence host species? The implications are also of interest to other types of studies of community ecology – after all, host-parasite interactions are not very different from predator-prey interactions, and similarly, despite knowing that interactions are complex and involve multiple species, we tend to focus on two or three species examples.

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