We study host-parasite systems to help our understanding of fast evolutionary change

Host-parasite interactions are associated with high selection pressures: parasites should evolve mechanisms to exploit their host, which leads to counter-adaptations by the host's immune system to reduce damage from the parasite. They are therefore ideal models to study evolution in action. We address this field using both natural populations of hosts and parasites, and with experimental evolution in the lab.

  • Tribolium castaneum


    Through our research using the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum as a model organism, we want to understand how basic characteristics of the immune system are shaped by evolution.
    Specificity and memory are the hallmarks of the vertebrate’s immune system. For a long time, invertebrate immune systems were thought to completely lack these phenomena. However, this paradigm is currently being weakened (Kurtz 2005). In the flour beetle, our group has demonstrated that individuals who had been treated with heat-killed bacteria show improved survival when subsequently confronted with live bacteria. This protection was strongest when bacteria were from the same strain, indicating an unexpected degree of specificity (Roth et al 2009). Most astonishingly, protection was even transmitted across generations, leading to enhanced survival of offspring when either the mother or the father was ‘vaccinated’ (Roth et al 2010). We are currently studying the evolutionary ecology of such phenomena as well as the genetic and immunological mechanisms behind them, and therefore use a range of molecular and immunological techniques to address these questions.
    Immune systems are shaped by parasites, and therefore the above questions cannot be answered without a close look at the specific adaptations of parasites that enable them exploiting their hosts. We thus observe beetles evolving with the bacterial parasite Bacillus thuringiensis in the laboratory over several generations. Together with collaboration partners within the DFG priority program Host-Parasite Coevolution, we address the genetic changes in both partners during such coevolutionary processes.

    Current group Current group members studying T. castaneum include:

    • Caroline Zanchi (Postdoc)
    • Rasha Aboelsoud (PhD-Student)
    • Kevin Ferro (PhD-Student)
    • Ana Korsa (PhD-Student)
    • Ana S. Lindeza (PhD-Student)
    • Lai Ka Lo (PhD-Student)
    • Özge Şahin (PhD-Student)
    • Nora K. E. Schulz (PhD-Student)

  • The Three-Spined Stickleback - Gasterosteus aculeatus
    © IEB - Animal Evolutionary Ecology Group


    With the three spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) we are investigating how environmental variation influences population dynamics and host–parasite coevolution.

    It is well established, that the evolutionary arms race of host–parasite counter adaptations is imprinted in the host and the parasite genome (genome x genome interaction, GxG). We hypothesise that environmental factors have a strong impact on host–parasite interactions and coevolution (GxGxE). With the three spined sticklebacks we are investigating a host species with a wide dispersal range, from marine and brackish waters, to freshwater lakes, streams, brooks and ditches.


    In sticklebacks, the tapeworm Schistocephalus solidus is a fascinating model parasite with an extremely high degree of adaptation to its specific stickleback host. The parasite manipulates not only the stickleback immune system, but also the behaviour of its host making it vulnerable to predation by the parasite's final host, a fish-eating bird.


    Graphical representation of host-parasite environment interactions.


    In our lab, we are investigating S. solidus – G. aculeatus pairs from different locations in Europe (Norway, Germany, Spain), with the aim to analyse environmental effects on host–parasite interactions and coevolution using temperature change as an environmental variable. The infected / uninfected sticklebacks are exposed to different temperature regimes in our digitally controlled aquaria facilities. Immune responses of exposed sticklebacks are investigated by means of flow cytometry and quantitative PCR.

    Experimental Workflow


    Furthermore, we are interested in the ability of sticklebacks and their parasites, to adapt to ‘new’ environments and to environmental change. Here we investigate situations where there has been a history of anthropogenic impacts, such as the construction of new or altered water bodies, migratory barriers and pollution. We observe that sticklebacks are extremely adaptive and tolerant to environmental change, making them a dominant fish species in some places, but parasites, such as S. solidus can take advantage of the sometimes high abundance of sticklebacks in disturbed water systems.

    Current group members studying G. aculeatus include:

    • Jörn Scharsack (Postdoc)
    • Nicolle Demandt (PhD-Student)
    • Manuel Talarico (PhD-Student)
    • Barth Wieczoreck (MSc-Student)

  • The Fruit Fly - Drosophila melanogaster


    Host-parasite interactions

    Host defence against parasites relies on the immune system: to understand how the immune system deals with parasites it is necessary to have insight into immunological mechanisms, and into how the evolutionary pressures of rapidly evolving parasites have shaped immune defence. We therefore take an ecological and evolutionary perspective to try to understand insect immune defence.

    The following research is led by Sophie Armitage and has two main research themes:

    i) The first theme aims to understand more about a fascinating gene called Dscam (Down syndrome cell adhesion molecule): Because of alternative splicing, the Dscam gene can produce thousands of different isoforms. These isoforms have been proposed to be involved in host-parasite interactions, and potentially parasite-specific recognition responses. We aim to understand more about Dscam’s role in relation to bacteria infections in both D. melanogaster and T. castaneum. We address this aim using a variety of approaches, particularly gene expression analyses, RNAi and RNA sequencing.

    Other researchers involved: Jörn Scharsack , Joachim Kurtz

    ii) The second theme relates to ways in which a host deals with its parasite: they can be resisted or tolerated. We try to understand more about these two phenomena, particularly in relation to previous immunological experience of the host. We address this aim using experimental immune-ecology.
    Other researchers involved: Megan Kutzer, Joachim Kurtz

    Further group members studying D. melanogaster:

    Sergio Ávila Calero (PhD-Student)