Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Antagonistic experimental coevolution with a parasite increases host recombination frequency

Niels AG Kerstes1*, Camillo Bérénos12, Paul Schmid-Hempel1 and K Mathias Wegner134

Author Affiliations

1 ETH Zürich, Institute of Integrative Biology, Experimental Ecology, CH-8092 Zürich, Switzerland

2 University of Edinburgh, Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK

3 Leibniz Institute for Marine Sciences (IfM-Geomar), Evolutionary Ecology of Marine Fishes, Kiel, Germany

4 Wadden Sea Station Sylt, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Sciences, List/Sylt, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-18

Published: 13 February 2012



One of the big remaining challenges in evolutionary biology is to understand the evolution and maintenance of meiotic recombination. As recombination breaks down successful genotypes, it should be selected for only under very limited conditions. Yet, recombination is very common and phylogenetically widespread. The Red Queen Hypothesis is one of the most prominent hypotheses for the adaptive value of recombination and sexual reproduction. The Red Queen Hypothesis predicts an advantage of recombination for hosts that are coevolving with their parasites. We tested predictions of the hypothesis with experimental coevolution using the red flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum, and its microsporidian parasite, Nosema whitei.


By measuring recombination directly in the individuals under selection, we found that recombination in the host population was increased after 11 generations of coevolution. Detailed insights into genotypic and phenotypic changes occurring during the coevolution experiment furthermore helped us to reconstruct the coevolutionary dynamics that were associated with this increase in recombination frequency. As coevolved lines maintained higher genetic diversity than control lines, and because there was no evidence for heterozygote advantage or for a plastic response of recombination to infection, the observed increase in recombination most likely represented an adaptive host response under Red Queen dynamics.


This study provides direct, experimental evidence for an increase in recombination frequency under host-parasite coevolution in an obligatory outcrossing species. Combined with earlier results, the Red Queen process is the most likely explanation for this observation.