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Although it may have profound effects on how researchers seek to tackle many infectious diseases, little is known of the genetic structure of many pathogen populations. Previous models have suggested that if levels of cross-protection are high, parasite populations may be structured into discrete strains with nonoverlapping antigenic repertoires, even among populations that reproduce sexually. Here, I consider a discrete model of the coevolution of parasites with host-acquired immunity. In this model, if the effective recombination rate is low, strain structure can be maintained for very high levels of cross-protection. However, if the effective recombination rate is higher, this strain structure can no longer be maintained. The effective recombination rate is affected by the actual recombination rate between immunologically selected loci, the proportion of individuals that reproduce sexually, whether recombination occurs inside or outside of the host or vector, and the level of cross-protection. The model predicts that for Plasmodium falciparum, where reproduction occurs inside of a vector, we expect to see strain structure in areas of low transmission but not in areas of high transmission. Strain structure is unlikely to be seen in parasites that reproduce outside of a host or vector, such as Strongyloides ratti.

Original publication




Journal article


The American naturalist

Publication Date





519 - 529


Institute of Cell, Animal, and Population Biology, University of Edinburgh, Kings Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, Scotland.