Parasite exposure, which is practically inevitable in the wild, typically results in activation of the innate immune system. While these responses provide rapid detection and elimination of parasites, they are also costly to hosts in many ways including increases in the use of essential amino acids to produce immune proteins. Costs experienced by hosts can sometimes be offset by abundant resources, but in most environments, resources are limited. As a result, immune costs are likely an important influence on many ecological and evolutionary phenomena, such as the diversity of immune defenses that exist among and even within populations. If immune costs are driving variation in immune responses, then it is reasonable to expect that they might also affect how parasites move through communities. If host costs of immunity increase with parasite exposure, then we would expect to see selection for hosts that tolerate infections, rather than clearing them.
In our study recently published in Functional Ecology, we examined whether increased exposure to Salmonella lipopolysaccharide increased costs of innate immune activation in brown anoles (Anolis sagrei) by tracking allocation of an isotope-labelled amino acid (13C-leucine) to the liver and gonads after exposure. We found that costs of immunity are indeed dose-dependent in this introduced population of from Tampa, Florida, but the sexes experienced costs differently; males increased leucine allocation to their livers while females sacrificed allocation to their gonads. Most interestingly, costs were modest even at high doses, suggesting that at high levels of Salmonella exposure, this species may tolerate infection as the costs of resisting a high level of infection may be too great. These results are particularly interesting because they indicate that populations of brown anoles, a successful introduced species in Florida, may have been selected to have decreased costs of immune activation, and therefore increased parasite burdens. This may mean they are substantially contributing to the disease risk of native species by increasing exposure risk of Salmonella to other animals in Florida by maintaining comparatively high burdens, which they shed into the environment.
Amber J. Brace
University of South Florida, Department of Integrative Biology