"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

August 15, 2013

Plasmodium relictum (revisited)

This is the third post in a series of blog posts written by students from my third year Evolutionary Parasitology unit (ZOOL329/529) class of 2013. This particular post was written by David Rex Mitchell on a paper published just this year on how an avian malaria parasite might make its bird host more attractive to mosquitoes which are the parasite's vector (you can read a previous post about toxic birds and their lice here and a post about bees protecting themselves against fungal parasites by lining their hives with resin here).

Photo of Culex pipiens
by Joaquim Alves Gaspar
One of the aspects of parasites that people tend to find a little more disturbing is the idea that they can control the minds of other animals. Although this may seem like the stuff of science fiction, this is indeed sometimes the case. For those parasites that live inside other animals, there are often several stages to their lives and each of these stages may require the use of a different type of animal. This presents a challenge in getting from one animal to the next and so if a parasite can influence the behaviour of one animal in some way, making it easier to reach the next, this is incredibly advantageous.

Many parasites have evolved abilities to do just this. For example, some blood-sucking insects infected with certain parasites are known to bite more frequently than when uninfected, helping to spread the disease to more animals. This is seen in malaria-infected mosquitoes, tsetse flies infected with sleeping sickness, and plague-infected fleas. But is it possible that a parasite can also influence a healthy, uninfected animal’s behaviour? The paper featured today attempts to address this question. Researchers used a species of avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum - a parasite that has been previously covered on the blog by this post here) and its natural mosquito carrier (Culex pipiens) to find out if malaria-infected animals are more attractive to mosquitoes than healthy, uninfected animals. This species of malaria is spread among birds via its mosquito carriers and thus the researchers chose canaries to carry out the experiment.

Photo of canaries by 3268zauber
Pairs of canaries, one infected with the parasite and one uninfected, were exposed to uninfected mosquitoes to see which bird they would prefer to feed on. The mosquitoes mostly fed on only one animal per sitting, so the blood inside their bellies could be removed and the DNA analysed to determine which bird it fed upon. The experiment was carried out on the day the birds were injected with the parasite, as well as 10 days and 24 days after injection, so as to monitor any changes as the parasites matured inside them.

From this experiment the researchers discovered that, not only did the mosquitoes clearly prefer to feast on the malaria-infected canaries, but also this behaviour became more prominent as the malaria parasites mature within the canary and become capable of crossing into a mosquito. The researchers suggest that the malaria parasite influences the mosquito’s decision to feed on the infected animal, assisting its transfer to said mosquito – the next stage in its life-cycle. The mechanism used to achieve this has not yet been determined but the researchers suggest that the parasite may alter the odours that are emitted from the host animal, enticing the mosquitoes to choose its infected animal over other uninfected animals. If these odours can be identified and reproduced, they may prove very useful in control of malaria in the future, for example in mosquito traps.

So is this an example of crazy sci-fi mind-controlling by parasites? Ok, so mosquitoes may not exactly be renowned for their calculated decision making skills. But the results of this experiment were still able to show us how the malaria parasite can influence a healthy mosquito’s decisions, offering further insight into the awesome manipulative powers of parasites.

Cornet S, Nicot A, Rivero A, & Gandon S (2013) Malaria infection increases bird attractiveness to uninfected mosquitoes. Ecology Letters 16: 323 – 329.

This post was written by David Rex Mitchell

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