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Open Access Research article

The genetic architecture of susceptibility to parasites

Lena Wilfert12* and Paul Schmid-Hempel1

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zürich, ETH-Zentrum CHN, CH-8092 Zürich, Switzerland

2 Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, King's Buildings, Edinburgh, EH9 3JT, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:187  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-187

Published: 30 June 2008



The antagonistic co-evolution of hosts and their parasites is considered to be a potential driving force in maintaining host genetic variation including sexual reproduction and recombination. The examination of this hypothesis calls for information about the genetic basis of host-parasite interactions – such as how many genes are involved, how big an effect these genes have and whether there is epistasis between loci. We here examine the genetic architecture of quantitative resistance in animal and plant hosts by concatenating published studies that have identified quantitative trait loci (QTL) for host resistance in animals and plants.


Collectively, these studies show that host resistance is affected by few loci. We particularly show that additional epistatic interactions, especially between loci on different chromosomes, explain a majority of the effects. Furthermore, we find that when experiments are repeated using different host or parasite genotypes under otherwise identical conditions, the underlying genetic architecture of host resistance can vary dramatically – that is, involves different QTLs and epistatic interactions. QTLs and epistatic loci vary much less when host and parasite types remain the same but experiments are repeated in different environments.


This pattern of variability of the genetic architecture is predicted by strong interactions between genotypes and corroborates the prevalence of varying host-parasite combinations over varying environmental conditions. Moreover, epistasis is a major determinant of phenotypic variance for host resistance. Because epistasis seems to occur predominantly between, rather than within, chromosomes, segregation and chromosome number rather than recombination via cross-over should be the major elements affecting adaptive change in host resistance.