The impact of environmental change on host-parasite coevolutionary dynamics

Environmental factors are known to affect the strength and the specificity of interactions between hosts and parasites. However, how this shapes patterns of coevolutionary dynamics is not clear. Here, we construct a simple mathematical model to study the effect of environmental change on host-parasite coevolutionary outcome when interactions are of the matching-alleles or the gene-for-gene type. Environmental changes may effectively alter the selective pressure and the level of specialism in the population. Our results suggest that environmental change altering the specificity of selection in antagonistic interactions can produce alternating time windows of cyclical allele-frequency dynamics and cessation thereof. This type of environmental impact can also explain the maintenance of polymorphism in gene-for-gene interactions without costs. Overall, our study points to the potential consequences of environmental variation in coevolution, and thus the importance of characterizing genotype-by-genotype-by-environment interactions in natural host-parasite systems, especially those that change the direction of selection acting between the two species.

Authors: Rafal Mostowy & Jan Engelstädter

Article published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences: volume 278 (August 2011), issue 1716, pages 2283-2292

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