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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Oct 22;273(1601):2633-40.

Inbreeding and disease resistance in a social insect: effects of heterozygosity on immunocompetence in the termite Zootermopsis angusticollis.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Boston University, 5 Cummington Street, Boston, MA 02215-2406, USA. dcalleri@gmail.com


Recent research has shown that low genetic variation in individuals can increase susceptibility to infection and group living may exacerbate pathogen transmission. In the eusocial diploid termites, cycles of outbreeding and inbreeding characterizing basal species can reduce genetic variation within nestmates during the life of a colony, but the relationship of genetic heterogeneity to disease resistance is poorly understood. Here we show that, one generation of inbreeding differentially affects the survivorship of isolated and grouped termites (Zootermopsis angusticollis) depending on the nature of immune challenge and treatment. Inbred and outbred isolated and grouped termites inoculated with a bacterial pathogen, exposed to a low dose of fungal pathogen or challenged with an implanted nylon monofilament had similar levels of immune defence. However, inbred grouped termites exposed to a relatively high concentration of fungal conidia had significantly greater mortality than outbred grouped termites. Inbred termites also had significantly higher cuticular microbial loads, presumably due to less effective grooming by nestmates. Genetic analyses showed that inbreeding significantly reduced heterozygosity and allelic diversity. Decreased heterozygosity thus appeared to increase disease susceptibility by affecting social behaviour or some other group-level process influencing infection control rather than affecting individual immune physiology.

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