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Emerging prion disease drives host selection in a wildlife population

April 1, 2012

Infectious diseases are increasingly recognized as an important force driving population dynamics, conservation biology, and natural selection in wildlife populations. Infectious agents have been implicated in the decline of small or endangered populations and may act to constrain population size, distribution, growth rates, or migration patterns. Further, diseases may provide selective pressures that shape the genetic diversity of populations or species. Thus, understanding disease dynamics and selective pressures from pathogens is crucial to understanding population processes, managing wildlife diseases, and conserving biological diversity. There is ample evidence that variation in the prion protein gene (PRNP) impacts host susceptibility to prion diseases. Still, little is known about how genetic differences might influence natural selection within wildlife populations. Here we link genetic variation with differential susceptibility of white-tailed deer to chronic wasting disease (CWD), with implications for fitness and disease-driven genetic selection. We developed a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) assay to efficiently genotype deer at the locus of interest (in the 96th codon of the PRNP gene). Then, using a Bayesian modeling approach, we found that the more susceptible genotype had over four times greater risk of CWD infection; and, once infected, deer with the resistant genotype survived 49% longer (8.25 more months). We used these epidemiological parameters in a multi-stage population matrix model to evaluate relative fitness based on genotype-specific population growth rates. The differences in disease infection and mortality rates allowed genetically resistant deer to achieve higher population growth and obtain a long-term fitness advantage, which translated into a selection coefficient of over 1% favoring the CWD-resistant genotype. This selective pressure suggests that the resistant allele could become dominant in the population within an evolutionarily short time frame. Our work provides a rare example of a quantifiable disease-driven selection process in a wildlife population, demonstrating the potential for infectious diseases to alter host populations. This will have direct bearing on the epidemiology, dynamics, and future trends in CWD transmission and spread. Understanding genotype-specific epidemiology will improve predictive models and inform management strategies for CWD-affected cervid populations.

Publication Year 2012
Title Emerging prion disease drives host selection in a wildlife population
DOI 10.1890/11-0907.1
Authors Stacie J. Robinson, Michael D. Samuel, Chad J. Johnson, Marie Adams, Debbie I. McKenzie
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70193425
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Leetown