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Open Access Research article

Impact of thermal stress on evolutionary trajectories of pathogen resistance in three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus)

Franziska M Schade*, Lisa NS Shama and K Mathias Wegner

Author Affiliations

Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Hafenstrasse 43, List/Sylt, 25992, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:164  doi:10.1186/s12862-014-0164-5

Published: 26 July 2014



Pathogens are a major regulatory force for host populations, especially under stressful conditions. Elevated temperatures may enhance the development of pathogens, increase the number of transmission stages, and can negatively influence host susceptibility depending on host thermal tolerance. As a net result, this can lead to a higher prevalence of epidemics during summer months. These conditions also apply to marine ecosystems, where possible ecological impacts and the population-specific potential for evolutionary responses to changing environments and increasing disease prevalence are, however, less known. Therefore, we investigated the influence of thermal stress on the evolutionary trajectories of disease resistance in three marine populations of three-spined sticklebacks Gasterosteus aculeatus by combining the effects of elevated temperature and infection with a bacterial strain of Vibrio sp. using a common garden experiment.


We found that thermal stress had an impact on fish weight and especially on survival after infection after only short periods of thermal acclimation. Environmental stress reduced genetic differentiation (QST) between populations by releasing cryptic within-population variation. While life history traits displayed positive genetic correlations across environments with relatively weak genotype by environment interactions (GxE), environmental stress led to negative genetic correlations across environments in pathogen resistance. This reversal of genetic effects governing resistance is probably attributable to changing environment-dependent virulence mechanisms of the pathogen interacting differently with host genotypes, i.e. GPathogenxGHostxE or (GPathogenxE)x(GHostxE) interactions, rather than to pure host genetic effects, i.e. GHostxE interactions.


To cope with climatic changes and the associated increase in pathogen virulence, host species require wide thermal tolerances and pathogen-resistant genotypes. The higher resistance we found for some families at elevated temperatures showed that there is evolutionary potential for resistance to Vibrio sp. in both thermal environments. The negative genetic correlation of pathogen resistance between thermal environments, on the other hand, indicates that adaptation to current conditions can be a weak predictor for performance in changing environments. The observed feedback on selective gradients exerted on life history traits may exacerbate this effect, as it can also modify the response to selection for other vital components of fitness.

Climate change; Infectious diseases; Vibrio tubiashii; Genotype x environment Interaction; Selection