Background: The intraerythrocytic development cycle (IDC) of the rodent malaria Plasmodium chabaudi is coordinated with host circadian rhythms. When this coordination is disrupted, parasites suffer a 50% reduction in both asexual stages and sexual stage gametocytes over the acute phase of infection. Reduced gametocyte density may not simply follow from a loss of asexuals because investment into gametocytes ("conversion rate") is a plastic trait; furthermore, the densities of both asexuals and gametocytes are highly dynamic during infection. Hence, the reasons for the reduction of gametocytes in infections that are out-of-synch with host circadian rhythms remain unclear. Here, two explanations are tested: first, whether out-of-synch parasites reduce their conversion rate to prioritize asexual replication via reproductive restraint; second, whether out-of-synch gametocytes experience elevated clearance by the host's circadian immune responses.
Methods: First, conversion rate data were analysed from a previous experiment comparing infections of P. chabaudi that were in-synch or 12 h out-of-synch with host circadian rhythms. Second, three new experiments examined whether the inflammatory cytokine TNF varies in its gametocytocidal efficacy according to host time-of-day and gametocyte age.
Results: There was no evidence that parasites reduce conversion or that their gametocytes become more vulnerable to TNF when out-of-synch with host circadian rhythms.
Conclusions: The factors causing the reduction of gametocytes in out-of-synch infections remain mysterious. Candidates for future investigation include alternative rhythmic factors involved in innate immune responses and the rhythmicity in essential resources required for gametocyte development. Explaining why it matters for gametocytes to be synchronized to host circadian rhythms might suggest novel approaches to blocking transmission.
Keywords: Chronoimmunology; Conversion rate; Inflammatory cytokine; Innate immunity; Intraerythrocytic development cycle; Malaria; Phenotypic plasticity; Plasmodium; Reproductive effort; TNF-α.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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