Humans and animals often become coinfected with pathogen strains that differ in virulence. The ensuing interaction between these strains can, in theory, be a major determinant of the direction of selection on virulence genes in pathogen populations. Many mathematical analyses of this assume that virulent pathogen lineages have a competitive advantage within coinfected hosts and thus predict that pathogens will evolve to become more virulent where genetically diverse infections are common. Although the implications of these studies are relevant to both fundamental biology and medical science, direct empirical tests for relationships between virulence and competitive ability are lacking. Here we use newly developed strain-specific real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction protocols to determine the pairwise competitiveness of genetically divergent Plasmodium chabaudi clones that represent a wide range of innate virulences in their rodent host. We found that even against their background of widely varying genotypic and antigenic properties, virulent clones had a competitive advantage in the acute phase of mixed infections. The more virulent a clone was relative to its competitor, the less it suffered from competition. This result confirms our earlier work with parasite lines derived from a single clonal lineage by serial passage and supports the virulence-competitive ability assumption of many theoretical models. To the extent that our rodent model captures the essence of the natural history of malaria parasites, public health interventions which reduce the incidence of mixed malaria infections should have beneficial consequences by reducing the selection for high virulence.
Vol. 60 • No. 7
Vol. 60 • No. 7