Wildebeest or malaria parasite -- same rules determine number of offspring

Jan 15, 2008

Whether you are dealing with the number of wildebeest on the Serengeti or the number of malaria parasites in the human body, new research shows the same ecological framework determines breeding numbers and population size.

New research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Fellow shows that the same community ecology principles that determine how different animal species on the savannah affect each other’s population sizes through competition for food and hunting by predators also affect parasite species interacting within the microcosm of a single host.

The research has important implications for treating many human and animal infections, including malaria and viruses. These infections rarely occur singularly and the research at the University of Edinburgh suggests that a range of drugs used to treat infection by parasitic worms may alter the effectiveness of anti-malarial and anti-viral treatments by affecting the level of competition among parasite species.

The research, conducted by Dr Andrea Graham, a BBSRC David Phillips Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, examined data from a large number of animal studies of coinfection. A microparasite infection such as malaria often occurs in people already suffering from other parasites, such as worms. The research shows that these multiple infections affect each other by competing for host nutrients or by generating an impaired immune system response.

The effect is the same as if a large herd of wildebeest started to eat all the available food in an area of the Serengeti. Analogously, the study found that if a host was suffering from a worm infection that caused a reduction in a nutrient needed by another parasite in the body at the same time, the second parasite would be reduced in number. Conversely, if a worm infection suppressed the immune response, other parasites would explode in numbers, just as zebras would rapidly breed in the absence of lions.

Dr Graham said: “People and animals do not normally suffer just one parasite infection at a time. By applying the same ideas used in studies of big ecosystems to parasites I have been able to show that we need ecological thinking in order to understand and thus control multiple infections. This approach will help us to most effectively treat diseases such as malaria in a world that’s full of co-infected hosts.

“Researchers have mostly studied and treated viral and bacterial infections in isolation. This is because multiple-species infections were previously thought to be far too complex to be understood. Now I’ve shown that we need to think like ecologists to make the problem more controllable.”

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Directory of Science and Technology, said: “This research focuses on understanding the fundamental biology of parasite infections but has huge practical implications. Ecological principles are here shown to have huge potential in understanding and treating parasitic disease, and shows the importance of interdisciplinary thinking in science and medicine.”

Source: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

Explore further: Prized sea snail not at risk of extinction, federal officials say

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Virus causing mass Cape Cod duck die-offs identified

Dec 16, 2014

Since 1998, hundreds and sometimes thousands of dead eider ducks have been washing up every year on Cape Cod's beaches in late summer or early fall, but the reasons behind these cyclic die-offs have remained ...

Stay complex, my friends

Dec 16, 2014

The KISS concept – keep it simple, stupid – may work for many situations. However, when it comes to evolution, complexity appears to be key for prosperity and propagating future generations.

Recommended for you

Keep dogs and cats safe during winter

21 hours ago

(HealthDay)—Winter can be tough on dogs and cats, but there are a number of safe and effective ways you can help them get through the cold season, an expert says.

Scientists target mess from Christmas tree needles

Dec 26, 2014

The presents are unwrapped. The children's shrieks of delight are just a memory. Now it's time for another Yuletide tradition: cleaning up the needles that are falling off your Christmas tree.

Top Japan lab dismisses ground-breaking stem cell study

Dec 26, 2014

Japan's top research institute on Friday hammered the final nail in the coffin of what was once billed as a ground-breaking stem cell study, dismissing it as flawed and saying the work could have been fabricated.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.