Distinct lineages of schistocephalus parasites in threespine and ninespine stickleback hosts revealed by DNA sequence analysis

Nicole Nishimura, David C. Heins, Ryan O. Andersen, Iain Barber, William A. Cresko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (SciVal)


Parasitic interactions are often part of complex networks of interspecific relationships that have evolved in biological communities. Despite many years of work on the evolution of parasitism, the likelihood that sister taxa of parasites can co-evolve with their hosts to specifically infect two related lineages, even when those hosts occur sympatrically, is still unclear. Furthermore, when these specific interactions occur, the molecular and physiological basis of this specificity is still largely unknown. The presence of these specific parasitic relationships can now be tested using molecular markers such as DNA sequence variation. Here we test for specific parasitic relationships in an emerging host-parasite model, the stickleback-Schistocephalus system. Threespine and ninespine stickleback fish are intermediate hosts for Schistocephalus cestode parasites that are phenotypically very similar and have nearly identical life cycles through plankton, stickleback, and avian hosts. We analyzed over 2000 base pairs of COX1 and NADH1 mitochondrial DNA sequences in 48 Schistocephalus individuals collected from threespine and ninespine stickleback hosts from disparate geographic regions distributed across the Northern Hemisphere. Our data strongly support the presence of two distinct clades of Schistocephalus, each of which exclusively infects either threespine or ninespine stickleback. These clades most likely represent different species that diverged soon after the speciation of their stickleback hosts. In addition, genetic structuring exists among Schistocephalus taken from threespine stickleback hosts from Alaska, Oregon and Wales, although it is much less than the divergence between hosts. Our findings emphasize that biological communities may be even more complex than they first appear, and beg the question of what are the ecological, physiological, and genetic factors that maintain the specificity of the Schistocephalus parasites and their stickleback hosts.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere22505
JournalPLoS One
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amino Acid Substitution/genetics
  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Cestoda/genetics
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • DNA, Mitochondrial/genetics
  • Genetic Variation
  • Haplotypes/genetics
  • Host-Parasite Interactions/genetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Parasites/genetics
  • Phylogeny
  • Proteins/chemistry
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Smegmamorpha/parasitology


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