Bacterial Thunderdome: Decoding virulence, spiteful interactions, and diversity

What happens when two parasites infect the same host individual? Is the outcome similar to the Thunderdome: two parasites enter, one parasite leaves? Host-parasite interactions are rarely so simple. While a reductionist approach to understanding the interaction of a parasite or pathogen with its host may decompose the system to a single infection, nature is full of much more complex puzzles. Within the host, the battle itself raging between parasites (within-host competition) may have cascading effects on the host.
Bashey et al 2012 wordle
A recent paper on virulence caught my eye (Bashey et al., 2012) which provides an update to a very interesting result from the group a few years ago. The system includes bacterial parasites, along with parasitic nematodes, that infect insect larvae and eat/digest them from the inside out. Vigneux et al. (2008) found that when multiple parasite isolates are mixed in a host, the host mortality decreased. However, this only occurred when the isolates were not related. In the experiment, the researchers created low relatedness by mixing populations with migration. I reviewed the 2008 paper over at the Coevolvers blog, my personal science blog. The hypothesis was that chemical warfare among the parasites decreased the parasite load and reduced the negative effects on the host, virulence.

The bacteria produce chemical weapons, bateriocins, which can broadly harm other isolates, but relatives are left unharmed. These chemical weapons can be classified as spiteful: in the process of harming others they also harm the focal individual. This self-harm comes from the cost of making the chemical weapon. Others have labeled this antagonistic trait a greenbeard gene.

Greenbeards are genes that can identify the presence of copies of themselves in other individuals, and cause their bearer to behave nepotistically toward those individuals (Gardner and West, 2010).

Gardner and West explain that the origin of this term comes from Richard Dawkins illustrative example where individuals bearing this trait had green beards.

Experimental results: Recently, natural system specific isolates of the parasite have been cultured in the lab allowing more specific tests of the within-host competition (Hawlena et al., 2010a; Hawlena et al., 2010b). In the most recent paper, Bashey et al. (2012) found that the bacterial isolates that produce the toxin have a higher growth rate in coinfections (where within-host competition might be important). However, in the absence of coninfections, there was no relative growth rate advantage of the toxin producing, inhibitory, isolates. In coninfections, even though the toxin producing isolate was winning the internal host battle, lower host mortality rate emerged as an outcome.

A beautiful world: As an evolutionary biologist, I’m interested not only in the diversity of the natural world, but also the mechanisms that keep that diversity around. We often think of natural selection as favoring the fittest. If a single type is better than the rest, then over time, diversity will decrease. Often the analogy of hill climbing is used. On the other hand, if the fittest depends on the context of the other players involved, than diversity might be maintained. That is, what if the shape of the mountain range is constantly changing. In relation to this research,

bacteriocins might promote local diversity when producer, sensitive, and resistant strains are engaged in a version of the rock‐paper‐scissors game (i.e., the producer can kill the sensitive strain, the resistant strain outcompetes the producer, and the sensitive strain outcompetes the resistant strain) in a spatially structured environment (Hawlena et al., 2010b).

If bacteriocins are costly to produce, than they must provide some benefit in some contexts. Bashey et al (2012) suggest that this mechanism, where the fitness of a particular parasite isolate is context dependent, may explain the high frequency of bacteriocin production found in the natural populations surveyed in their earlier work (Hawlena et al., 2010a).

Stay tuned for future research by Dr. Farrar Bashey as she assures me more pieces to this puzzle will be revealed.


  • Bashey F, Young SK, Hawlena H, Lively CM (2012) Spiteful Interactions between Sympatric Natural Isolates of Xenorhabdus Bovienii Benefit Kin and Reduce Virulence. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 25: 431-437. DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02441.x
  • Gardner A, West SA (2010) Greenbeards. Evolution 64: 25-38. DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00842.x
  • Hawlena H, Bashey F, Lively CM (2010a) The Evolution of Spite: Population Structure and Bacteriocin-Mediate Antagonism in Two Natural Populations of Xenorhabdus Bacteria. Evolution 64: 3198-3204. DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01070.x
  • Hawlena H, Bashey F, Mendes Soares H, Lively CM (2010b) Spiteful Interactions in a Natural Population of the Bacterium Xenorhabdus Bovienii. The American Naturalist 175: 374-381. DOI: 10.1086/650375
  • Vigneux F, Bashey F, Sicard M, Lively CM (2008) Low Migration Decreases Interference Competition among Parasites and Increases Virulence. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 21: 1245-1251. DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2008.01576.x

Research Blogging Paper
BASHEY, F., YOUNG, S., HAWLENA, H., & LIVELY, C. (2012). Spiteful interactions between sympatric natural isolates of Xenorhabdus bovienii benefit kin and reduce virulence Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 25 (3), 431-437 DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02441.x