XIX.2 The adaptation of a parasite to its host often limits its host spectrum

The evolution of a parasite and its host often has the character of an “arms race”, in which the host develops more or less specific mechanisms of defense against parasitization and the parasite, on the other hand, develops mechanisms allowing it to avoid or overcome these defense mechanisms.However, the fact that a parasite adapts perfectly to a certain species of host means that it closes the route to parasitization on other species.Thus, “arms races” frequently lead to very narrow specialization of the parasitic species and often result in narrow host specificity of the parasite.Narrowing of the host spectrum frequently ends with a state where the parasite is capable of completing its life cycle only in the members of a single host species and does not  attack even closely related species at all (Fig. XIX.3).This is in sharp contrast with the situation for a number of groups of predators, where narrow specialization of the predator on a single species is certainly not the rule.

Fig. XIX.3 Terminology employed to describe the host specificity of a parasite in relation to relatedness of host species. If the parasite attacks a single host species, it is denoted as oioxenic or monoxenic, if it attacks only a range of phylogenetically related species, it is termed stenoxenic and, if it attacks a range of mutually unrelated species, it is termed euryxenic

For example, molecular mimicry is characteristic for some parasitic microorganisms (including viruses) (Moloo, Kutuza, & Boreham 1980).The parasite adapts the structure of its macromolecules to the structure of the relevant macromolecules of the host organism.If, for example, a certain virus were capable, through gradual accumulation of substitution mutations, of eliminating, from its proteins, all the peptides that are recognized as being foreign by the immune system of the host species, and thus adapt its “peptide  vocabulary”, i.e. the set of peptides occurring in its proteins, to the  vocabulary of its host, it would quite certainly escape from the reach of the immune system of the host, and could thus spread uncontrollably in the relevant host population.(The fact that it is not an easy matter for the parasite to achieve this final state and the role of MHC-antigens and sexuality in the defense of the host were described in Section VIII.4.3.1.)However, if the peptide  vocabularies of two host organisms are very different, and this is highly probable as a result of the relevant selection pressure from parasites (see below), then a parasite cannot simultaneously adapt its  vocabulary to two different  vocabularies of two host species, except at a cost  of drastic limitation of its own peptide  vocabulary, which is incompatible with functionality of the proteins.Any form of utilization of the principle of molecular mimicry thus again creates selection pressure for gradual narrowing of the host spectrum of the parasite.

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The classical Darwinian theory of evolution can explain the evolution of adaptive traits only in asexual organisms. The frozen plasticity theory is much more general: It can also explain the origin and evolution of adaptive traits in both asexual and sexual organisms Read more
Draft translation from: Evoluční biologie, 2. vydání (Evolutionary biology, 2nd edition), J. Flegr, Academia Prague 2009. The translation was not done by biologist, therefore any suggestion concerning proper scientific terminology and language usage are highly welcomed. You can send your comments to flegratcesnet [dot] cz. Thank you.