BACKGROUND: Co-evolutionary arms races between parasites and hosts are considered to be of immense importance in the evolution of living organisms, potentially leading to highly dynamic life-history changes. The outcome of such arms races is in many cases thought to be determined by frequency dependent selection, which relies on genetic variation in host susceptibility and parasite virulence, and also genotype-specific interactions between host and parasite. Empirical evidence for these two prerequisites is scarce, however, especially for invertebrate hosts. We addressed this topic by analysing the interaction between natural isolates of the soil nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the pathogenic soil bacterium Serratia marcescens. RESULTS: Our analysis reveals the presence of i) significant variation in host susceptibility, ii) significant variation in pathogen virulence, and iii) significant strain- and genotype-specific interactions between the two species. CONCLUSIONS: The results obtained support the previous notion that highly specific interactions between parasites and animal hosts are generally widespread. At least for C. elegans, the high specificity is observed among isolates from the same population, such that it may provide a basis for and/or represent the outcome of co-evolutionary adaptations under natural conditions. Since both C. elegans and S. marcescens permit comprehensive molecular analyses, these two species provide a promising model system for inference of the molecular basis of such highly specific interactions, which are as yet unexplored in invertebrate hosts.
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