- Research article
- Open Access
Mortality selection during the 2003 European heat wave in three-spined sticklebacks: effects of parasites and MHC genotype
© Wegner et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 27 January 2008
Accepted: 30 April 2008
Published: 30 April 2008
Ecological interaction strength may increase under environmental stress including temperature. How such stress enhances and interacts with parasite selection is almost unknown. We studied the importance of resistance genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II in 14 families of three-spined sticklebacks Gasterosteus aculeatus exposed to their natural macroparasites in field enclosures in the extreme summer of 2003.
After a mass die-off during the 2003-European heat wave killing 78% of 277 experimental fish, we found strong differences in survival among and within families. In families with higher average parasite load fewer individuals survived. Multivariate analysis revealed that the composition of the infecting parasite fauna was family specific. Within families, individuals with an intermediate number of MHC class IIB sequence variants survived best and had the lowest parasite load among survivors, suggesting a direct functional link between MHC diversity and fitness. The within family MHC effects were, however, small compared to between family effects, suggesting that other genetic components or non-genetic effects were also important.
The correlation between parasite load and mortality that we found at both individual and family level might have appeared only in the extraordinary heatwave of 2003. Due to global warming the frequency of extreme climatic events is predicted to increase, which might intensify costs of parasitism and enhance selection on immune genes.
Most organisms are infected by a multitude of parasites species . The associated fitness costs for hosts are often profound , rendering the host-parasite relationship as one of the most intense ecological interactions. The selection pressure on the host to overcome infection might result in an evolutionary arms race between parasite and host. One consequence of such host-parasite co-evolution is the maintenance of genetic diversity in defense genes resulting in marked fitness differences among host genotypes [3, 4]. The identification of variable genetic loci that determine specific resistance and thereby enhance host fitness is of prime importance in ecological and evolutionary research . The most striking example of genetic polymorphism that is maintained by parasites is the vertebrate major histocompatibility complex (MHC). MHC molecules activate T-cells by presenting parasite-derived peptides, if the host's individual collection of MHC molecules includes those that can bind to a peptide of the actual infectious agent. Otherwise the infection escapes a T cell response. This suggests that pathogens are the ultimate cause driving MHC diversification  and several studies found associations between resistance and presence of single MHC alleles or MHC haplotypes (reviewed in [7–11]).
This applies to three-spined sticklebacks Gasterosteus aculeatus L. MHC class II loci that were shown to influence parasite load [12–14] and female mate choice [15, 16]. Interestingly, these studies, along with findings from sparrows , turkeys  and pythons  demonstrate that an intermediate number of MHC sequence variants may be favored by selection, as has been predicted by an optimality model . The crucial evidence that is missing thus far is the link between an intermediate number of MHC alleles and maximal Darwinian fitness, under natural, yet still controlled settings. Hence, we wanted to combine advantages of a field study with the knowledge from earlier experimental studies [13, 14] by using enclosures in the field. Enclosures were stocked with 14 lab reared, parasite free fish families.
Based on previous laboratory studies [13, 14], we predicted that genotypes with an intermediate number of MHC class IIB sequence variants are least infected under more natural field conditions and thus may have higher survival rates. Such a result would reveal the still missing direct link between the number of MHC sequence variants and fitness under almost natural conditions.
Recent studies suggested that a habitat specific MHC genotype cannot fully account for local adaptation to the sympatrically prevalent parasite fauna. The family specific genetic background still explained a large proportion of parasite load . Since parasite load is dependent on individual MHC diversity in sticklebacks [13, 12] a true genetic family background effect can best be assessed in families that lack variation in individual MHC diversity. Therefore, we wanted to test the relative importance of MHC genotypes compared to other genetic components by using two kinds of families: one group of families with variable MHC genotypes of the same kind used in previous studies (i.e. segregating families [22, 13, 23] and one where families only showed a single MHC genotype (non-segregating families). The latter kind results from a cross of parents, which are homozygous at their MHC loci, while segregation of MHC genotypes results from at least some loci being heterozygous. A comparison of both types of families can separate effects attributable to variation in individual MHC diversity in segregating families from effects only dependent on the family genetic background in non-segregating families. If individual MHC diversity is responsible for determining parasite load within-family variation as well as among family variation should be larger for segregating families.
It has been shown recently that the expression of virulence in coupled genetic interactions between hosts and parasites depend on abiotic factors like temperature [24–27]. The strength of selection on MHC diversification might be amplified by additional environmental stress . In which direction expression of virulence is modified is however hard to predict . Hence, phenomena associated with global climate change such as heat waves or precipitation extremes will alter the impact of parasitism, ultimately selecting for increased genetic variability at immune defense loci such as the MHC. On a larger geographic scale MHC diversity was already shown to covary with temperature and bacterial diversity in the water body among Canadian populations of salmon . Our study conducted in 2003 coincided with a period of exceptionally high temperature in central and northern Europe that may be viewed as precursor of future climate extremes . High water temperatures led to substantial mortality in our experimental population. We explore here whether parasitism was a likely cause of mortality selection, and whether this is linked to MHC diversity on a local scale as well.
Characteristics of the 14 families of three-spined sticklebacks.
FAMILY (hatching date)
1 (06.06. 2002)
M89b, M90, M92, S89b, S91
0.40 ± 1.01
M89, M92, M92–93, S89, S92
M89, M89b, M92, M92–93, S89, S89b, S91, S92
2 (07.06. 2002)
M89b, M92–93, S89, S92
0.09 ± 0.94
M89c, M90, M92, S89b, S91
M89b, M89c, M90, M92–93, S89, S92
M89b, M90, M92, M92–93, S89, S89b, S91, S92
3 (28.04. 2002)
M90, M92, S89b, S91
-0.50 ± 1.61
4 (05.05. 2002)
M90, M92, S89b, S91
0.46 ± 2.04
5 (21.05. 2002)
M89, M93, S89, S91
-0.69 ± 1.67
6 (15.05. 2002)
M89b, M92–93, S89, S92
M89b, M89c, M90, M92–93, S89, S89b, S90, S92
7 (03.05. 2002)
M90, M92, M92–93, S89, S89b, S91
M89b, M89c, M92, M93, S89, S91, S92
M89b, M89c, M90, M92–93, S89, S89b, S90, S91
8 (02.05. 2002)
M90, M92–93, S89b, S92
0.98 ± 1.37
9 (25.04. 2002)
M89c, M90, S90
1.98 ± 1.66
M89, M93, S89, S92
M89c, M90, M91, S90, S91b
M89, M90, M91, S89, S90, S91b
10 (02.05. 2002)
M90, M92, S90, S91
M89b, M92–93, M93, S89, S90, S91
M89b, M90, M92, M93, S89, S89b, S92
M89b, M90, M92, M92–93, S89, S90, S91, S92
11 (04.05. 2002)
M89b, M93, S89, S92
1.89 ± 1.36
M89b, M89c, M91b, S89, S90
M89b, M90, M92, M93, S89, S90, S91b
M89c, M90, M91b, M92, S89, S90, S91b, S92
12 (24.04. 2002)
M89c, M91b, S89, S90, S93
M89b, M91b, M92–93, S89, S92, S93
M89c, M90, M91b, M91, S89, S90, S91, S92
M89b, M90, M91, M92–93, S89, S90, S91, S92,
13 (23.04. 2002)
M89, M89b, S89
0.56 ± 0.94
M89, M89b, S89, S93
M89b, M91b, M92–93, S89, S92
M89, M89b, M92–93, S89, S92, S93
M89b, M93, S89, S91
M89b, M92, M93, S89, S91, S92
M89, M89b, M92, M93, S89, S91, S92
M89, M89b, M92, M93, S89, S89b, S91, S92
Enclosures & Dissection
Fish were exposed to their natural macroparasite fauna in enclosure cages in the lake Grosser Plöner See, Germany (10° 25' 50" E, 54° 09' 21" N). We used stainless steel net cages measuring 1 m * 0.5 m * 0.5 m with mesh size of 5 mm as enclosures. The 14 fish families were evenly distributed over all cages (i.e. 4 fish/family and cage) resulting in 55–56 fish per cage. This way, we controlled for cage effects and can assume that all fish within one cage were exposed to a similar number of parasites. On April 30th 2003 the cages were placed into lake at a depth of ≈1 m, when fish were between 327 and 372 days old (Tab. 1). Enclosures were checked and cleaned from algae fortnightly to enable immigration of invertebrate intermediate hosts and free-living infective parasite stages into the cage. Extreme water temperatures with a maximum of 24.3°C (compared to a maximum of 19.6°C in the previous year) and associated evaporation during August caused lake water levels to drop dramatically. To prevent oxygen depletion, we moved the cages further into the lake keeping the cages at the same depth. This could, however, not prevent a mass die off, in which 78% of the fish died in early August. The remaining 61 alive fish were brought to the lab on 12th of August to be dissected during the following two weeks. Of the dead fish we found only a few more or less intact corpses. Since dead fish obviously decomposed rather quickly, an accurate determination of parasite load was impossible. Therefore, we dissected only the surviving fish. For counting parasite species we killed the fish in an excess of 3-aminobenzoic acid ethyl ester (MS 222) and followed the dissection protocol used by Kalbe et al. .
We genotyped each fish from the 2003 study at its MHC class IIB loci. To this end we applied single stranded conformation polymorphism (SSCP) on a 124 bp PCR product covering the functionally important antigen binding region of the exon 2 of the MHC class II β chain [35, 16]. Individual numbers of MHC class IIB sequence variants ranged from three to nine. Genomic architecture of the stickleback MHC class IIB region is not known in great detail. Genomic screens indicated that up to six MHC class IIB loci might be present . These loci are partly organized in recently duplicated tandem repeats  but the distribution of MHC genotypes in the field suggests that the number of loci might actually vary between individuals, which is a situation commonly found in other fish species [36, 37]. Over 90% of sequence variants detected this way are transcribed to messenger RNA suggesting functionality . To genetically tag and identify individuals, we also genotyped all fish at the start and all live fish at the end of the experiment using five polymorphic microsatellite loci [38, 39] and could identify 58 of the 61 survivors unambiguously. The remaining three fish were left out of the analysis.
All tests were performed in JMP professional 6.0 (SAS Institute), only generalized linear models with negative binomial error distributions were calculated using R statistical package . We performed one analysis on factors determining mortality that included all fish. A second analysis comprised only those individual fish that survived the summer of 2003. Only the latter data set was used for analyzing parasite infection data.
As we were interested in family effects resulting in differences in infecting parasite community, we performed a linear discriminant analysis (lda) using log-transformed parasite counts as response variables and fish family as classification variable. Prior probabilities were set to the observed numbers of dissected fish and the first two axes were kept for visualization.
Given a family specific infection patterns we were further interested in detailed differences in infection intensity for each parasite species. Macroparasitic infections usually follow a negative binomial distribution  and we first fitted a negative binomial distribution to determine the aggregation parameter k for each parasite species and used this in the subsequent generalized linear model (GLM). Each GLM included family and cage as factors controlling for uneven distributions of parasite stages between cages.
We were also interested in a measure of total infection intensity because infection by multiple parasite species might increase fitness costs. It is, however, likely that the cost inflicted on the host differ between parasite species, with some species causing less harm than others at identical infection intensities. It is fair to assume that the range of infection intensities within each species over all hosts roughly correlates to the costs of infection. Therefore we used the sums of all standardized log-transformed count values from all species as a measure of overall parasite load. This procedure sets the mean for each species to 0 achieving equal contribution of each species to the sum. This measure correlated well with the number of parasite species infecting the host (R = 0.656, n = 51, P < 0.0001, used by Wegner et al ) while also taking the abundance of each single species into account. Total parasite load measured this way followed a normal distribution (Shapiro-Wilk W-test for deviation from normality: W = 0.975, P = 0.472).
To investigate the role of individual MHC diversity in parasite infection in segregating families we needed to control for cage effects and family specific genetic effects other than MHC genotype. Therefore, we expressed total parasite loads as residuals of a linear model with the standardized sum as response and cage and family as factors. Hypothesizing an optimal intermediate number of MHC class IIB sequences variants, we tested the effect of MHC on these residuals by fitting a quadratic polynomial as the simplest function possessing a minimum.
To examine effects of the number of MHC class IIB sequence variants within segregating families we scaled survival probabilities for each MHC genotype to its respective family mean. This way, any heritable trait influencing mortality that differed among families would not influence the analysis of the main factor of interest, i.e. the number of MHC class IIB sequence variants. If an MHC genotype survived better than the family average it would be assigned a positive score, while an MHC genotype with lower survival would get a negative one. If an intermediate number of MHC class IIB sequence variants is associated with higher survival, we would thus expect a higher proportion of intermediate genotypes with positive values.
Among families: Parasite load
Since most fish were infected by at least three parasite species we were also interested on potential fitness effects of the total parasite load. Total parasite load was negatively correlated to the growth of the fish. Growth was calculated as ln (length at dissection) – ln (length at start). Fish that had a higher total parasite load grew more slowly (R2 = 0.355, F1,38 = 7.836, P = 0.008). This effect that was independent of initial length indicating that we actually observed an effect of the parasite and not just preferential infection of smaller fish. When comparing families with segregating and non-segregating MHC genotypes, the mean total parasite load of non-segregating families was not significantly different (F1,52 = 0.506, P = 0.480). We also found no significant difference in within-family variation supporting the observations from the multivariate data.
Among families: Survival
Since we were mainly interested in partitioning the within family variance according to different MHC genotypes the analyses presented here only include fish from segregating families and focuses on the number of MHC sequence variants within these families.
Within families: Parasite load
Within families: Survival
This study aimed at disentangling the interaction between parasite-induced mortality selection and individual MHC diversity in a semi-natural setting using outdoor enclosures. Exposing parasite free fish in the field enabled us to evaluate the selective impact of the whole parasite fauna and its relation to individual MHC genotypes (Fig. 4). Furthermore, we were able to identify that mortality selection within families was directly related to the MHC genotype, extending previous studies that found effects on mate choice [15, 16] and parasite loads [12–14]. MHC-dependent survival was highest when individuals carried an optimal, i.e. intermediate, number of MHC class IIB sequence variants (Fig. 5).
MHC genotype has been linked to survival in several studies, which measured survival directly  or identified protective alleles against fatal forms of disease using fish model systems [43–45]. Similar results have been found in ruminants, where MHC alleles were positively correlated with survival but negatively correlated to intestinal nematode burden . In the light of these studies, a selective role of parasites in determining survival as a result of the MHC genotype of fish hosts seems plausible.
We can only assume infection intensities among those fish that died before sampling the experiment. An extrapolation of parasite load from the survivors to the dead fish (Fig. 4) is justifiable because previous laboratory studies under benign conditions showed similar patterns of parasite infection [13, 14]. Under these assumed infection intensities, higher mortality found in sub- and super-optimal MHC genotypes may at least partly be attributed to higher parasite burden. We can however indirectly assess fitness costs in the surviving fish where growth rate negatively correlated with total parasite load. This pattern was independent of length before stocking and therefore only reflects impeded growth in the enclosures. Slowed growth rate of fish with high parasite burden did therefore not result from low growth rates before parasite exposure and the observed change in growth rates may be attributed directly to higher parasite burdens.
By using within family comparisons, we minimized the effect of genetic factors other than those associated with the MHC class IIB region, because the genetic background characteristic for each family cancels out in this analysis. In between-family comparisons, these family background effects turned out to be quite strong and explained a major proportion of variation in survival as well as parasite infection patterns (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). Family background is also the most likely explanation why non-segregating families showed lower mortality than segregating families. We can however not be sure that these family effects are really truly genetic. They could also represent maternal, epigenetic or environmental effects, which have previously been linked to parasite infection in fish . The unknown nature of these family effects strengthens the observed within-family MHC effect, because this is linked to the MHC genotype. The within family MHC effect was however outweighed by the between family effects as no differences in overall parasite load between segregating and non-segregating families could be detected. The different MHC genotypes within segregating families did also not lead to an increased variance in infection intensities in these families, which might be attributed low sample sizes per genotype due to the high mortality in these families. Parasite infection patterns of segregating families deviated stronger from the population mean (Fig. 1, Fig. 2), which might indicate that the higher segregational variance allows escape from the most prevalent parasites representing the population mean.
Our data from 2003, a year with extreme summer temperatures, suggests that mortality selection can be strong. The correlation between parasite load and survival in both within and among family comparisons indicates that parasites might indeed have played a role for the high mortality rates. Compared to wild caught fish from the same area infection  intensities here were much higher in the majority of parasite species observed in this study. Also pilot studies using the same experimental set-up did show reduced parasite burdens as well as lower mortality rates (M. Kalbe, unpublished data). High infection intensities in 2003 may have been a consequence of bad fish condition, increased exposure to parasites , or altered expression of virulence resulting from genotype × genotype × environment interactions (G × G × E) [24–26]. Either way, the high parasite infection intensities might be a result of environmental stress, and will further increase selection on MHC and other immune genes. A similar pattern on a larger geographical scale was previously observed for Atlantic salmon in Canada, where allelic richness and selection on antigen binding regions of MHC class II genes increased with increasing temperature and pathogen richness . Here, we can now not only show that within families a link between individual MHC diversity and mortality exists but that also other family specific factors apart from the MHC will play an important role under extreme environmental conditions. Extreme climatic events as the singular event of the 2003 heat wave are predicted to increase . In light of the family specific parasite loads and mortality under such conditions, the interaction of abiotic environmental stress and parasitism  will become an increasingly interesting field for addressing questions of natural selection in the context of global warming.
We would like to thank Anja Hasselmeyer, Sybille Liedtke for help with genotyping, Gisep Rauch for statistical support, Lisa N.S. Shama and three anonymous referees for valuable comments, Gerhard Augustin, Dietmar Lemcke and Monika Wulf for taking care of the fish and Helga Luttmann for screening of gill parasites.
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