Host exposure history modulates the within-host advantage of virulence in a songbird-bacterium system
Leon, Ariel E.
Fleming-Davies, Arietta E.
Hawley, Dana M.
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The host immune response can exert strong selective pressure on pathogen virulence, particularly when host protection against reinfection is incomplete. Since emerging in house finch populations, the bacterial pathogen Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) has been increasing in virulence. Repeated exposure to low-doses of MG, a proxy for what birds likely experience while foraging, provides significant but incomplete protection against reinfection. Here we sought to determine if the within-host, pathogen load advantage of high virulence is mediated by the degree of prior pathogen exposure, and thus the extent of immune memory. We created variation in host immunity by experimentally inoculating wildcaught, MG-naïve house finches with varying doses and number of exposures of a single pathogen strain of intermediate virulence. Following recovery from priming exposures, individuals were challenged with one of three MG strains of distinct virulence. We found that the quantitative pathogen load advantage of high virulence was strongly mediated by the degree of prior exposure. The greatest within-host load advantage of virulence was seen in hosts given low-dose priming exposures, akin to what many house finches likely experience while foraging. Our results show that incomplete host immunity produced by low-level prior exposure can create a within-host environment that favors more virulent pathogens.