An evolutionary perspective on gastrointestinal nematodes of sheep Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • AbstractThe purpose of this paper was to discuss from an evolutionary perspective the interaction between domestic sheep (Ovis aries)and their gastrointestinal nematodes. Although evolution is the central theme of biology, there has been little attempt to consider how evolutionary forces have shaped and continue to shape the relationships between domestic animals and their parasite community. Mathematical modelling of the host–parasite relationship indicated that the system is remarkably robust to perturbations in its parameters. This robustness may be a consequence of the long coevolution of host and parasites. Although nematodes can potentially evolve faster than the host, coevolution is not dominated by the parasite and there are several examples where breeds of cattle or sheep have evolved high levels of resistance to disease. Coevolution is a more equal partnership between host and nematode than is commonly assumed. Coevolution between parasites and the host immune system is often described as an arms race where both host immune response genes and parasite proteins evolve rapidly in response to each other. However, initial results indicate that nematode antigens are not evolving rapidly; the arms race between the immune system and nematodes, if it exists, is happening very slowly. Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection states that genes with positive effects on fitness will be fixed by natural selection. Consequently, heritable variation in fitness traits is expected to be low. Contrary to this argument, there is considerable genetic variation in resistance to nematode infection. In particular, the heritabilities of nematode-specific IgA and IgE activity are moderate to high. The reasons for this apparent violation of the fundamental theorem of natural selection are not clear but several possible explanations are explored. Faecal nematode egg counts increase at the beginning of the grazing season – a phenomenon known as the periparturient rise. This increase benefits host and parasite and appears to be a consequence of coevolution. In conclusion, an evolutionary perspective can shed light on many aspects of the host–parasite relationship in domestic animals.

publication date

  • 2011