Intraspecific competition for host resources in a parasite

Curr Biol. 2021 Mar 22;31(6):1344-1350.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.034. Epub 2021 Feb 23.


Intraspecific competition among parasites should, in theory, increase virulence, but we lack clear evidence of this from nature.1-3 Parasitic plants, which are sessile and acquire carbon-based resources through both autotrophy (photosynthesis) and heterotrophy (obtaining carbon from the host), provide a unique opportunity to experimentally study the role of intraspecific competition for nutrients in shaping the biology of both parasite and host.4-6 Here, we manipulated the spatial position of naturally occurring individuals of desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum), a xylem hemiparasite, by removing parasites from co-infected branches of a common nitrogen-fixing host, velvet mesquite (Prosopsis velutina), in the Sonoran Desert. We measured physiological performance of both host and parasite individuals under differing competitive environments-parasite location along the xylem stream-through time. Performance was determined by measuring resource availability and use, given that resource demand changed with competitor removal and monsoon-driven amelioration of seasonal drought. Our principal finding was that intraspecific competition exists for xylem resources between mistletoe individuals, including host carbon. Host performance and seasonal climate variation altered the strength of competition and virulence. Hemiparasitic desert mistletoes demonstrated high heterotrophy, yet experimental removals revealed density- and location-dependent effects on the host through feedbacks that reduced mistletoe autotrophy and improved resource availability for the remaining mistletoe individual. Trophic flexibility tempered intraspecific competition for resources and reduced virulence. Mistletoe co-infections might therefore attenuate virulence to maintain access to resources in particularly stressful ecological environments. In summary, experimental field manipulations revealed evidence for intraspecific competition in a parasite species.

Keywords: Phoradendron californicum; Prosopis velutina; communication; desert; heterotrophy; mistletoe; parasitism; photosynthesis; virulence; xylem.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Autotrophic Processes
  • Carbon
  • Climate
  • Fabaceae / physiology*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Nitrogen
  • Phoradendron / parasitology*
  • Seasons


  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen