Variation in Immune Defense Shapes Disease Outcomes in Laboratory and Wild Daphnia

Tara E. Stewart Merrill, Spencer R. Hall, Loren Merrill, Carla E. Cáceres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Host susceptibility may be critical for the spread of infectious disease, and understanding its basis is a goal of ecological immunology. Here, we employed a series of mechanistic tests to evaluate four factors commonly assumed to influence host susceptibility: parasite exposure, barriers to infection, immune responses, and body size. We tested these factors in an aquatic host-parasite system (Daphnia dentifera and the fungal parasite, Metschnikowia bicuspidata) using both laboratory-reared and field-collected hosts. We found support for each factor as a driver of infection. Elevated parasite exposure, which occurs through consumption of infectious fungal spores, increased a host's probability of infection. The host's gut epithelium functioned as a barrier to infection, but in the opposite manner from which we predicted: thinner anterior gut epithelia were more resistant to infectious spores than thick epithelia. This relationship may be mediated by structural attributes associated with epithelial cell height. Fungal spores that breached the host's gut barrier elicited an intensity-dependent hemocyte response that decreased the probability of infection for some Daphnia. Although larger body sizes were associated with increased levels of spore ingestion, larger hosts also had lower frequencies of parasite attack, less penetrable gut barriers, and stronger hemocyte responses. After investigating which mechanisms underlie host susceptibility, we asked: do these four factors contribute equally or asymmetrically to the outcome of infection? An information-theoretic approach revealed that host immune defenses (barriers and immune responses) played the strongest roles in mediating infection outcomes. These two immunological traits may be valuable metrics for linking host susceptibility to the spread of infectious disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1203-1219
Number of pages17
JournalIntegrative and comparative biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Plant Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Variation in Immune Defense Shapes Disease Outcomes in Laboratory and Wild Daphnia'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this