Hidden costs of infection: Chronic malaria accelerates telomere degradation and senescence in wild birds

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Science  23 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6220, pp. 436-438
DOI: 10.1126/science.1261121

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Chronic malaria shortens telomeres

Chronic infections are assumed to cause little damage to the host, but is this true? Migrant birds can pick up various species of malaria parasite while overwintering in the tropics. After initial acute malaria, migrant great reed warblers, which nest in Sweden and overwinter in Africa, are asymptomatically infected for life. Asghar et al. discovered that these cryptically infected birds laid fewer eggs and were less successful at rearing healthy offspring than uninfected birds. Furthermore, infected birds had significantly shorter telomeres (the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes) and produced chicks with shortened telomeres.

Science, this issue p. 436


Recovery from infection is not always complete, and mild chronic infection may persist. Although the direct costs of such infections are apparently small, the potential for any long-term effects on Darwinian fitness is poorly understood. In a wild population of great reed warblers, we found that low-level chronic malaria infection reduced life span as well as the lifetime number and quality of offspring. These delayed fitness effects of malaria appear to be mediated by telomere degradation, a result supported by controlled infection experiments on birds in captivity. The results of this study imply that chronic infection may be causing a series of small adverse effects that accumulate and eventually impair phenotypic quality and Darwinian fitness.

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