Genetic diversity helps protect against disease

Frontiers in Microbiology: Researchers observing evolutionary change in real time show that a fungal parasite can quickly adapt to a population of genetically identical cyanobacteria but not to populations with different genetic variants

The researchers observed real-time evolutionary change in the fungal parasite. Image: Shutterstock

The finding that a fungal parasite can quickly adapt to a population of genetically identical cyanobacteria, but not to populations with different genetic variants, helps explain why a high degree of diversity in populations may be valuable for their preservation.

— By Forschungsverbund Berlin

So much for survival of the fittest — diversity is the key: a team of researchers from the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) has succeeded in demonstrating experimentally that genetic diversity makes populations more resistant to disease. The study is published in Frontiers in Microbiology.


Adaptation of a Chytrid Parasite to Its Cyanobacterial Host Is Hampered by Host Intraspecific Diversity
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Why is it that animal and plant species throughout the world have different genetic variants within their particular species, even though it is supposed to be the “fittest” gene pool that survives? According to a common theory in evolutionary biology, it is to enable the species to respond more effectively to changes in the environment, such as the occurrence of disease. However, experimental evidence to support this theory is very difficult to obtain: After all, it is virtually impossible to observe how evolutionary trends develop in most animal and plant species — their generation times are simply too long.

Evolutionary change in real time

A team led by IGB researcher and evolutionary ecologist Dr Ramsy Agha has now investigated the evolution of the fungal parasite Rhizophydium megarrhizum. This parasite infects the cyanobacterium species Planktothrix, which is prevalent in many freshwaters. The team exposed the parasite to host populations whose individuals were genetically identical to each other, and alternatively to populations comprised of different genetic variants. Since the fungus multiplies rapidly, roughly once a day, the scientists monitored its performance for a total period of 200 days.

“We wanted to observe evolutionary change in real time and under controlled conditions, to find out if and how quickly parasites adapt to genetically homogenous and diverse hosts,” explained Dr Agha.

The scientists permitted the adaptation of Rhizophydium megarrhizum, but kept the host populations in an evolutionary standstill. “We were able to show that the fungi adapt to genetically homogenous hosts very quickly, that is within just three months,” reported Dr Agha. This adaptation is reflected in the fact that the parasites managed to adhere to the hosts and overcome their defence mechanisms more quickly, and were therefore able to reproduce more rapidly.

Genetic diversity in the host population slows down adaptation of parasites

If, on the other hand, the cyanobacteria were genetically diverse, these effects did not occur. The parasite failed to adapt, and the state of the disease remained unchanged. Genetic diversity in cyanobacteria evidently slows down the adaptation of the parasite, increasing their resistance to disease.


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“Our findings are also significant for ecosystem research in general, because they help us to explain why a high degree of diversity in populations may be valuable for their preservation,” said Dr Agha. He and his team want to investigate next what happens when not only the parasite, but also the host population is permitted to adapt to changed conditions. The researchers hope to gain further insights into how disease – generally perceived as a negative phenomenon — is a crucial natural process that promotes and preserves biological diversity.


Original article: Adaptation of a Chytrid Parasite to Its Cyanobacterial Host Is Hampered by Host Intraspecific Diversity

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1 Comment on Genetic diversity helps protect against disease

  1. rnamediated // August 19, 2018 at 4:29 am // Reply

    I will save a screenshot of this comment in an attempt to support the winning side of the “Info Wars” battle thinks can be won with more pseudoscientific nonsense.

    See for comparison. Nutrient-dependent Pheromone-Controlled Ecological Adaptations: From Angstroms to Ecosystems https://t.co/5VkgY01ZXQ The ecological adaptations, which appear to be manifested in the human population are detailed in these two reports…. The ecological adaptations are likely to be nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled. If so, ecological variation probably leads to ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction, which is manifested in increasing organismal complexity and species diversity… If not, there may be something as yet unknown about mutations and evolution that makes sense in the light of what is known about nutritional epigenetics and the molecular biology of species from microbes to man.

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